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Story: A Silent, Private Place, by Davien

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  • Story: A Silent, Private Place, by Davien

    A Silent, Private Place.

    Another error in the trace. I sigh and rub my eyes. The clock says I've been at this for more than six hours, and suddenly I really have to pee. For a minute, I wonder why real hacking can't be more like it is in the movies. There are no spies here, no girls with guns, no loud music or banks with easy to access GUIs.

    "It's not real hacking if there isn't more fucking at the console than there is in the bedroom, right, B?" He doesn't respond.

    A greenish glow fills the bus from the many monitors checking his vital signs. Other than the road noise, the only sound comes from the hum of the bed as it adjusts beneath Bobby's body. "I'll get it. I just need more time."

    It was a stupid stunt at the pool. Everyone had been drinking. Bobby jumped in, fell in, was pushed in, and hit his head pretty hard. Even though they got him out fast, even though he got to the hospital within twenty minutes, there was too much bleeding, and there was a clot. Chances are, Bobby would never wake up.

    But, something's going on in his mind. The monitors have a signal. And "where there's a signal"

    "I'll figure it out. Just give me time."

    I got the idea when I read about the University College London study that used an algorithm to interpret the results of functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) to guess what the patient was thinking. Another study at Utah University attached electrodes into the brain and were able to decode spoken words. Then they made the commercially available Emotiv headset which reads brain waves from outside the skull, and I figured "What the hell?"

    "Did I tell you? I got the bus. We're going to Vegas, and you're going to talk this year. Back to DEF CON. You'll be able to tell everyone thank you, yourself."

    Everyone has been really great, pitching in to buy this and that to make it easier, petitioning for Bobby to get care. The Twitter campaign to get donations, by itself, is probably the reason he's still alive. There's no way I could have afforded the bed, the monitors, or the feeding system by myself.

    I refill my bottle of water, take some more Ritalin, and get back to the code. Eventually, the down side crashes me hard, and I have to sleep. I'll test when I wake up again. There's nothing else I can do.

    In the morning, I have no idea what any of the code means. But it runs. I load Skwiddie's audio module. A baseline hum comes out of it. "Hey, B. You awake?" I shake his arm a little and squeeze his hand. "I've got the thing set up. I don't know how much you heard. But, I need you to start thinking about words."

    "Not just thinking the words, B. You have to think just like you're saying them. Start with something simple. A sound, even."

    I look back to the screen, and the audio line is flat with only the baseline hum. "Come on."

    Still nothing. I sigh, and get ready to unplug the rig. I'll have to re-trace all the code and see what I did wrong. Then, the line moves. And the hum warbles.

    I freeze in place, afraid to breathe, in case I am imagining it. The line jitters again. "Wuh-wuh-wuh-hmmmmmmmm," the speaker says.

    "tuh tuh tuh.
    "Oh my god. Bobby?"
    "Yes!" I bury my face in my brother's chest and hug him on his bed. I'll need to tune it, make the word recognition smoother. But, it works! I run to the computer to ping Skwiddie. The signal is spotty.
    "It works," I type.
    "Wuh-wuh-wuht arrrrr yuh-oo duh-duh-ooo-eee."
    "I'm typing to Skwiddie. He wrote your audio code. Going to see if we can tune it to make it easier."
    "Really? He say anything yet," Skwiddie asks?
    "Trying. Need to tweak the output. I'm sending you some of the signal analysis, see if you can clean up the sound."
    "You're mind-reading."
    "I guess so."
    "Hell of a hack. You can't encrypt your mind," Skwiddie types.
    "Eh, I'm only doing this for my bro."
    "Yeah, well, don't link it to Facebook."
    "Fuck you, Skwiddie."
    "You know what I mean."
    "Lah-Lah-Laaaaaht fuh fuh fuh tah tah tah-kkkk."
    "Yeah, B. Working out the details."
    "You really think it'll be that big a deal?" I type to Skwiddie.
    "It scares the hell out of me."
    "So, what? I should keep it secret and not help the thousands of others who need this? Other researchers are well on the way to this."
    "You going to drop it at DEF CON?"
    "I dunno."
    "I wouldn't. You could end up in a duffle bag over something like this."
    "Gross, Skwid."
    "I'm serious."
    "Think about it. If you could read someone's mind, what's the point of a trial? Or an interrogation?"
    "It's not that big a deal."
    "Talk to Bobby about it. See what he says. I'll ship you an update tomorrow."
    "Thanks, Skwid."

    I spend the rest of the day taking care of Bobby and cleaning up the code. We talk a little, but progress is slow, and I'm still pretty tired. Tomorrow, we'll be in Vegas. I think about what Skwiddie said. In the end, I decide it's possible. And, he's right, you can't encrypt your mind. But, the tuning is specific to each person. Even if they had my code, it would have to be rewritten for each person. There's just no way.

    True to form, when I check in the morning, Skwiddie has left me an update. I load it and hope for the best while the bus driver pulls off the highway and into the smaller roads leading into the city.

    "How about now, B?"
    "What - wow."
    "Ye-es" Buuut weeeeird."
    "Weird hearing the voice, or something else?"
    "I could put some noise canceling headphones on so you can only hear me. Would that be better?"
    I redirect the mic and set up the headphones. I click to speak: "Better?"
    "Don't know. Hear me."
    Again, I click to speak, "Yes. It's a little slow, still. Don't overrun it."
    "Can I wake?"
    "I don't know, B. We'll need to talk to the doctors again. But this is huge. You can talk to them yourself!"
    "It's because you've been laying for so long. I can move you, but you'll probably be sore somewhere else."
    "What you do?"
    "I'm reading your brain waves, and I wrote an interpreter. Skwiddie wrote the vocalizer."
    "Skwiddie's scared of it, though."
    "Thinks someone's going to use it to spy on people's brains."
    "Nobody would do that."
    "What? It didn't catch that."
    "Need module for ssssaaaaarrrcassssummm."
    I laugh. "Probably. It only knows words. Not movement. I guess we could do some kind of Second Life thing. But..."
    "No. This serious. Privacy issue. Could boost the distance. Hear thoughts."
    I slump. "So we keep this secret?"
    "Don't know. Dangerous."
    "Hm. Ok. I'll take precautions."

    The bus slows as we hit traffic. We'll be at the hotel soon. I dig through my special stash of code goodies and start patching my code while the medical technician gets Bobby's bed ready to move. As the bus arrives, I pack away the rig and remove the headset from Bobby's head. "Sorry, B. I'll hook you back up later when we get to the room."
    I check us in and leave the med tech with Bobby while I get our badges. It takes forever, and there's no way with all the crowds that we're going to be able to move Bobby freely. I go back to the hotel for a nap, and wake up early. While the crowd is thin, we go to the Chillout room. There's already a bunch of medical equipment in the back for drawing blood. This is where we set up. I finish my code patch and put the headset back on, and launch the code.

    "At DEF CON. In the Chillout room."
    "Wub Wub Wub."

    I laugh. As the day goes on, a few people stop by just to see what we have, but they don't know me or Bobby. Others, who do know us, stop to talk and are amazed by the code. A few people want the source so they can make modifications or games. I decline politely. One guy openly suggests he could integrate the code into his drone sweeper. I ask him to discuss the idea elsewhere and make it obvious that I am keeping the code on a USB drive and keeping it close.

    By lunch on the second day, the USB stick has been stolen. I have backups on my laptop, of course, and at home. But Skwiddie's comment about ending up in a bag really bothers me. Within two hours, the rumor starts: someone has made a new virus that wipes people's drives, be careful what you download.

    It looks like whoever stole my USB found my little present. It's enough to have me spooked. "B. I'm worried."
    "What happened?" I tell him.
    "Not worth it. Publish."
    "Publish Code."
    "But, what if Skwiddie is right and someone uses it for Facebook?"
    "Nothing. It's a joke about frictionless sharing."
    "Oh. Not worth it. Publish."

    I think about it, and about all the shady things I've ever read. I decide he's right. I put it on another USB, remove the malware wrapper, and set the data free.

    Six months later, there seem to be a lot of people pleading guilty in murder trials, and the news is spending a lot of time talking about foreign relations. Google has released a new device for augmented reality: a set of goggles you can hands free control. Speculation is that it uses the same technology behind the Emotiv headsets to send text commands to the controller. But, we won't know for a year or more. The device is still in beta and only allowed to be used by Google employees. An NDA prevents them from talking.

    Bobby has gotten better with talking since we've been able to build up his dictionary. I've figured out how to get him online so that he can code again, and use IRC. Now I'm heading to the hackerspace to see if we can make an Emotiv jammer.
    Last edited by Nikita; June 1, 2012, 02:19. Reason: Format Tweak
    "Haters, gonna hate"