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Story - DEF CON Unbound, by John McNabb

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  • Story - DEF CON Unbound, by John McNabb

    By John McNabb

    Drecnet sat at a table in the DEF CON 20 Speaker ready room, ignoring his laptop with the presentation he was scheduled to give in 15 minutes, and instead was working intently on the device in his hand. The device was all black, 1/4 inches thick, 2 ½ inches wide, and 6 inches tall, about 33% larger, but somehow much lighter, than his iPhone. He had received the device in the mail a month ago, in response to an email he sent agreeing to an invitation for him to compete in the mysterious Multiverse Hacker Challenge. He called it his MVGameboy.
    As soon as he had taken it out of the package, one side lit up saying "Welcome" in the middle and the characters 1100100 on the upper right. It then launched into a series of questions with the counter decrementing by 1 in binary as he answered each question. It never indicated whether he answered correctly or not, it just kept on going. There were no openings, no way to recharge it, but it never seemed to need recharging. It was slightly warm to the touch.

    Most questions were Capture the Flag Qualification type of questions, like "EAX = 0. EDX is undefined. What is the mnemonic of the one byte instruction to make both zero?" (Which sounded familiar for some reason.) Most questions were not multiple choice. It also included some physics questions such as "If the moon is receding from the earth at the rate of 4 cm per year, how much power is being dissipated in tidal friction?" and some multiple choice questions like "Look at this sequence of symbols. Select the correct pattern." There were also a few relatively easy binary, hex, and octal math problems.

    If a file was needed a link appeared and he could read the file on the MVGameboy, which had a versatile touchscreen. It also had a disassembler, a compiler, and other programming and forensic programs he could use. There was also a search function so he could look up anything he needed to answer any question. There was no time limit for any question, but he seemed drawn to it and got more and more compulsive every day about conquering the challenges. He got an immense sense of pleasure from just answering each question, without knowing whether it was correct or not.

    But now as he answered one more question, and the counter moved to 0000001, his speaker Goon tapped his shoulder gently and said "Ok, time to get set up now." Drecnet sighed, put away the device without looking at the last question, packed up his laptop, tried to switch his mental gears to his presentation, and followed the Goon to Track 2 to give his talk: "What didn’t happen: Possible alternative histories of technology."
    "OK, lets go."

    DEF CON at Heinlein Base

    The airlock hissed closed behind him as Steve entered the dome.

    "Hey, look who’s here," said Todd. "Did you bring the goods?"

    "You bet," said Steve, as he took off his space helmet. "I have four six-packs of space beer, in those quaint collapsible plastic containers we have grown to love, and six quarts of our Lunar brewed Club Mate."

    "And just in time," said Aaron, who had just arrived himself only a few minutes earlier and was still getting out of his space suit. On the Moon everyone was on UTC/GMT time, and since Las Vegas was UTC-7, their "day" watching the presentations, which start at 10:00 Las Vegas time, would start at 5:00 PM UTC and end at 5:00 AM UTC. Just one of the hazards of living on the Moon.

    The 24 members of DEF CON Group Luna, DC7654321, had gotten permission to reactivate Dome #1, which was the first geodesic dome habitat used in the early days of the Heinlein Base Lunar settlement on the South Pole in 1985. After being used as one of the primary habitats from 1985-2001 it was abandoned as the ever growing population, now in 2012 a total of about 1,200 colonists, scientists, astronomers, engineers, and technicians, needed more space and burrowed underground to be better protected from cosmic radiation and meteorites. Also, since the dome was not covered with regolith as recommended to protect against cosmic rays, it had been deemed not safe for long term occupancy. But, it would be fine for the 4 days needed for the DC members to watch DEF CON live from Las Vegas.

    They had entered the dome about 24 hours ago in their space suits, filled the dome with oxygen-nitrogen gas from the remaining supply that had been left onsite, brought it to the correct air pressure, then tested the seals to ensure no leakage. The air seemed a little stale, although recently spiced up by the smell of sweat from the attendees as they took of their spacesuits.

    The dome seemed free of damage from micrometeorites which hit the moon everywhere on a constant basis. As there was no atmosphere, or weather, or animals or fungus, etc on the Moon they didn’t have to worry about the usual deterioration a structure on Earth would have suffered. However, the Moon does have extreme temperature swing and the solar wind, which because there is no atmosphere, can severely weather materials. The dome was constructed to withstand hits by the smallest and more prevalent micrometeorites but could be punctured by the thankfully much less frequent larger ones.

    "Everyone ready to start the transmission? They started about 10 minutes ago." asked Jack, the unofficial leader of the Group. They had cleared a large area of wall, fortunately already colored white, to use as a screen, and had a projector they had borrowed from one of the entertainment centers on the base. They had permission to use some of the bandwidth from Earth, reserved for cultural or entertainment purposes, for the full four days July 26-29 of DEF CON. However, they had only one screen so they would have to pick only one session at a time to watch. Today they had decided to stick to Track 2 all day.

    Someone let out a ‘wet burp’ spraying some of the space beer across the room, because the light gravity on the Moon tended to allow the carbonation to dissolve into the beer. They all laughed.

    "Ok, any more comments? Here we go," said Jack, as the projector turned on and they saw the podium of Track 2 at DEF CON at the Rio casino-hotel in Las Vegas, about 239,000 miles away, on the big screen. There is a 3 second delay sending a transmission Earth-Moon and another 3 seconds back, but that would hardly be noticed.

    Drecnet had already started. "...That concludes my "what if" scenario of alternative computer development. Thanks again to all of you for attending and to those watching remotely. I want to especially give a shout out to those who are watching now from Dome#1 at Shackelton Crater on the Moon, and the brave crew of the USS Bradbury heading to Mars, for tuning in. I think you will find the next part of my talk extremely relevant."

    "My talk is on "What didn’t happen," he said. "The fact is that while we all feel that our history was inevitable, which is reinforced by many historians who tend to attribute events after the fact to historic trends, there are many turning points in history where events could have gone in a completely different direction. Events happen in history because someone did it, or didn’t do something else."

    "Physicists and cosmologists have concluded, based on quantum mechanics, that there are in fact an infinite number of parallel universes, a multiverse in fact, in what we usually consider to be "the universe." So there is at least one universe with an Earth exactly like this one, but an infinite number with Earths slightly, or a lot different, than ours.

    "Think for example the last time you made a decision based on the flip of a coin. In this universe it went heads, but in another universe it was tails and you did something different. But what does that mean for the history of technology. We will look at a few interesting examples."

    He advanced to the slide which said SPACE PROGRAM with a photo from Lunar orbit of the Shackelton Crater Lunar Base near the Lunar South Pole. Marked on the photo were the ice deposits which serve as the source of water and oxygen which made the long term Lunar base feasible.

    "What if the Apollo Program had been cancelled before the lunar base had been established?"

    "I know that sounds fantastic, especially in this community where many of us believe that that space program has been a tremendous driver for technological development, human progress, and scientific knowledge. However, it is instructive to ask the "what if" question to consider what the world would be like without our present space program.

    "Furthermore, the current lunar based space economy benefits the US economy by providing solar power beamed to satellites and to receiving stations on Earth, and thousands of tons of silicon which is the basis for the ever increasing solar power percentage of the US energy mix.

    "We know that the US got its commitment to send men to the Moon from President John F. Kennedy and that this commitment was continued and expanded when his brother, Robert, served as President from 1968 - 1976. This path was bipartisan and was even continued under President Reagan. The US control of space, the ultimate "high ground", was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which could not handle the costs to try to match the US, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1985

    "I am not trying to inject a political discussion here," he paused. "I am focusing this talk on the space program not on any other political views of the different Administrations which supported it.

    "The key point in time," Drecnet said, "where this path could have been derailed was in Presidential politics. What if Robert Kennedy had not been elected President in 1976 to continue his brother’s commitment to the space program? If Richard Nixon, who hated the Kennedys, had been elected, many historians are fairly certain that after Apollo 11 he would have cut back the Apollo program, perhaps ending it at Apollo 18 or 19, if for no other reason than it was the legacy of Jack Kennedy, who beat him in 1960.

    "There are two specific points of divergence. The first one is the election of November 5, 1968, of course, which despite the popularity of the Kennedy’s was still a close election. The other is June 4, 1968, where RFK survived an assassination attempt by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. If he had in fact been assassinated then, our future today would be very different.

    "How long would the manned space program have continued if Nixon had cancelled it after Apollo 11? How many of the remaining planned Apollo landings would have occurred? Would the massive Saturn V rockets, still the most powerful ever built, been abandoned and lost to time? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Also, we wouldn’t have been mining the Moon for Helium-3, which is now being used to power the fusion reactor on the Bradbury going to Mars.

    "Hopefully NASA would have continued with unmanned missions and a manned space station. Private industry would have to start to pick up the slack. Hackers would have to start their own space program, which has already been done in this Universe by the Chaos Communications Congress.

    He advanced to the next slide which said NIKOLA TESLA with a photo of the Wardenclyffe Tower that Tesla built in Shoreham, New Jersey in 1901 to test the beaming of power through the air.

    "Nikola Tesla, as I think just about everyone here is aware, was the visionary who had experimented with beaming electrical power through the air...."
    The screen went blank. Abruptly the transmission ended

    "What happened?" Jack asked, looking over the group.

    "Looks like there was an accident which took out the dish," said Aaron, after talking into his comm unit. "We’ve all been recalled to help repair the damage and assess the other systems. Not sure if it was a micrometeorite or something else." Another hazard of the Lunar settlement.

    "OK, lets go."

    Multiverse Capture the Flag

    Back on Earth, Drecnet finished his talk and spend about 20 minutes in the Q&A room before he could escape and look at the MVGameboy again. The final question was yet another "find the pattern" type of question, which he was able to answer, presumably correctly, in about 30 minutes.

    The word "Congratulations" then appeared on the screen, followed by a floor plan of the Rio with a red dot showing his present location and a moving arrow showing him where to follow. Great, he thought, maybe now I’ll find out what this all about. He started walking.

    Following the moving arrow, he walked to some large unused corridors and turned a corner. In front of him, instead of the hallway, was a large door with an arch at the top. The MVGameboy then read "Open" so he turned the doorknob, opened the door, and walked through to the other side.

    Drecnet was now in another hallway, which he followed to another door of the same type. On opening that door he was in a large well lit room with plate glass windows on one side with a view of a stretch of palm trees, just what you usually see in Las Vegas. There was also a large metal tower off near the horizon, with a spherical metal top. He then noticed that there were about nine other people, five women and four men, in the room, seated, all but one of them was clutching their MVGameboy in their hands. He was then greeted by their host. He handed Drecnet a small earpiece, which he was told could translate any language into English so there would not be any language difficulties.

    "Welcome to the Multiverse Capture the Flag Contest," he said to Drecnet, shaking his hand. "My name is Nikola and these are some of the other contestants. Please take a seat and I will start the briefing." Nikola was tall, thin, with a pale complexion and wearing a black suit coat and slacks and a white shirt.

    "I know this all will sound fantastic to you," he addressed the room. "But you are in a parallel universe to your own. The observable ‘universe’ that you have lived in is but one of an infinite number of universes, since the whole of existence is not a single universe but a collection of different multiverses, or ‘verses."

    There were gasps and everyone started talking at once. Drecnet’s jaw dropped, then he closed his mouth. He thought to himself – am I in a dream? I was just talking about this a little while ago! He was familiar with the concept, of course. One could travel to other ‘verses using a wormhole through Einsteinian space-time, in theory at least. It would take an incredible amount of energy, which apparently these people had developed. In Drecnet’s ‘verse Tesla had been experimenting with tapping unlimited energy from the cosmos, looks like they succeeded with it here.

    Nikola raised his hand, palm forward. "Yes, I know. Please bear with me and all your questions will be answered."

    "In this universe," Nikola continued, "with our superior understanding of electromagnetic and other natural forces, we have developed the technology to travel to many different ‘verses and have so far visited and catalogued thousands of them. We avoid the vast majority of them, however, where humanoid life like ours never developed or are otherwise too dangerous. That still leaves a few thousand ‘verses which can provide as a rich source of information, commerce, and understanding.

    "But we realize we can always learn more, which is why we collect the best hackers from the many ‘verses and have this contest. For each of you this will be a valuable experience, and for us it will add to our large body of accumulated knowledge on information processing security so we can better protect the computing resources of this planet."

    Drecnet kept his best poker face on. Something didn’t sound right.

    "This contest is sponsored by the World Technology Council, which has the very important role of protecting the peace by regulating the development and use of weapons of mass destruction to prevent them from getting into the hands of tyrants and those who would misuse them. The WTC performs this service for every citizen of this planet through its worldwide computer communications network, which must be kept secure."

    A hand went up. "Question. Since each of us comes from a different ‘verse, as you call it, we must use very different computer hardware and software, and use different network structures, so how can we even use your system, let alone penetrate it?"

    Nikola smiled. "I was just getting to that. Our computers are based on what some of you would call UNCOL or Universal Computer-Oriented Language. An UNCOL computer can be accessed through any other computer language through a translator program, which of course has to be developed specific to the language you prefer to use. Before we recruited each of you, we developed the applicable translator program for the languages each of you use. We have also accomplished the same process for the nature of the networks you will be accessing, so you will see them as an analogue of the type of networks you are used to working with."

    "As a side note," Nikola continued, " you may be interested also in this. Each of you in each of your different ‘verses, were attending DEF CON, where of course we knew was perhaps the best place to recruit proficient hackers. Virtually every one of the ‘verses we are aware of that has humanoid life on Planet Earth (although there a few where Earth is barren but life is on Mars, but I digress) where there is information processing technology of some kind, there is a DEF CON conference."

    "In every case DEF CON is the largest worldwide hackers conference, although it isn’t always called DEF CON. Other names are variants on the Defense Condition theme – such as LERTCON, EMERGCON, REDCON or WATCHCON. While in most cases it is in Las Vegas, in ‘verses where there is no Las Vegas, their ‘DEF CON’ is in a major city such as London (where the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition re-occurred at the same location for decades in one ‘verse), Germany, Tokyo, Brasilia, or Beijing. In short, DEF CON appears to be a fixed point in space and time, it is present in every ‘verse where the conditions exist to allow it. Therefore that is also the point where all the different ‘verses converge, making it the best place to establish the portal with the least use of energy."

    Another hand went up. "What do we get out of this? What are the prizes?"

    Nikola paused. "We have designed the prizes to be something unique to each of you, something you always wanted. While there will be a grand prize for the winner, each of you will be rewarded in some way that will please you. The total contest commitment is 30 days here. You each get a comfortable apartment, room & board, for that time. And because the portal that got you here is a wormhole through space and time, we will return you to your own ‘verse at the exact location you left at the same time you left, so you won’t lose time here."

    "That is the end of the introductory briefing. We will now partner you with another contestant who has been here for a while, to show you the ropes as some of you say. Thank you and good luck!"

    "Hi Drecnet, I’m Kari" she shook his hand. "Lets go to the room they have set up for us and I’ll break you in." Kari was pretty, short brown hair, slim figure. She looked oddly familiar to him, but he couldn’t place it. Kari came from a universe similar in many ways as Drecnet’s. On her Earth, RFK was assassinated in 1968, Nixon was elected President in 1968, and then he did decide to stop the Apollo program at Apollo 17.

    Unlike the many CTF contests Drecnet was used to, this one was not a team sport. Sole hackers would vie to penetrate different systems in various scenarios, some relatively short durations of only a few days and then a few long hauls of a few weeks each. The "flag" which had to be recovered was different in each case, sometimes it was a set of passwords for the superuser account, sometimes it was a specific file or folder in a certain computer, sometimes it was just to show the way into a certain network through a number of barriers. The scoring system wasn’t explained, he supposed they would tell them after the fact.

    Kari showed him the setup. They would share a large apartment with a kitchen area, two bedrooms and a work area for each of them. He had a main computer on the contest network with multiple screens, which was running the flavor of Ubuntu he preferred. He also had two other computers with multiple operating systems that he could use offline from the attack. Kari had a similar work area of her own. She told him to put his MVGameboy down and not touch it for a while.

    He noticed something strange. While there were many electrical appliances in the apartment, there were no power cords and no power outlets. Kari explained that in this ‘verse Nikola Tesla got sufficient funding in the early 1900’s to build his inventions and the planet soon had universal electric power through the aid using a chain of towers like the one that he had seen outside the window.

    The next few days were the grind of many introductory exercises to get him used to the system. They had a souped up version of Metasploit, called MultiversePloit, which had dozens of new modules he needed to get familiar with. Of course, he poked around the network as much as he could to see what was going on behind the scenes as much as he could. This poking around led him to believe that things were not as they seemed.

    On day five, before he could ask her about this, Kari came to him, put her finger to her lips, took out a MVGameboy and turned it on.

    "Good, now they can’t hear or see us," she said.

    "What’s going on here," he asked. "It looks like we are attacking a variety of live systems that aren’t in their network."

    "That’s right," she said. "Let me talk please, we don’t have much time." Kari explained that she had been there for two weeks before him and had learned that they had been conditioning the contestants so they wouldn’t want to leave. Every time you answered a question the device stimulated the pleasure center of your brain. Those that did nevertheless insist on leaving after their contest was over were not sent home, but just disappeared.

    "So they’re not good guys" he said dryly.

    "No. The sponsors are with a group called The Organization, they are criminals. They are using the contest to learn how to break into the computer systems in many different ‘verses so they can take over those planets and then loot and enslave them. We need to get out of here fast before their conditioning takes hold or they find out we are on to them."

    "How do we get out of here?" he asked, trying not to panic.

    Kari explained she had been spending most of her time penetrating their portal system that regulated travel to other ‘verses. Unfortunately, many ‘verses were completely blocked, including their ‘verses. However, a ‘verse very similar to both of theirs just became unblocked, but if they wanted to go there they had to go soon before they blocked it again. They could each use their MVGameboy, which functioned to call up the portal, to call up the door and open it.

    "Do you know why it was blocked?" he asked. Kari thought it had been blocked because there had been a pandemic in 2005, but that it probably had become automatically unblocked when the hygiene sensors detected that the pandemic had subsided. As soon as the human operators of the system noticed they had a hole in their fence they were likely to close it, so they had to move fast. She had downloaded all the portal addresses to both their MVGameboys but could not guarantee they would be able to use any of them after they left.

    "If we go there," he asked, "are we stuck there?" She nodded.

    "Do we have any other alternative?" She shook her head. He sighed.

    "OK, let’s go."

    World of the Electron and the Switch

    They came out of the portal in the same hallway that they both had originally, separately, entered. Kari then explained that she had reinstated the block on this ‘verse in the Organization’s computers, had it marked indefinitely to be blocked because of a pandemic, and erased the log showing that they had used this portal, so hopefully the Organization would never look for them here.

    Drecnet’s iPhone showed it was still July 26, 2012 at the same time he had left. They headed toward the conference areas, and found a back door so they could avoid security. What kind of DEF CON could they be having here seven years after a worldwide pandemic? The Rio looked just about the same as they each had remembered from their own worlds, so hopefully this world was close enough in many ways so they could get by.

    The crowds seemed to be just as big as they remembered from prior DEF CONS, and at this time they could see that just about everyone was heading to the Rio Pavilion, where Track 1 was, and the Amazon Room, where Track 3&4 were. In the Pavilion were rows and rows of tables with power cords for laptops and chairs. They found two empty seats, sat down, pulled out their laptops, and found they were able to get onto the unsecured UNDEF CON network. "UNDEF CON"? they thought. That gave them the hidden SSID and the temp password for the secured network, which they logged onto to see what they could find out.

    The crowd went silent as the Dark Tangent took the stage and began to speak.

    "Thank you all for coming to DEF CON 20. As you know, following the Great Avian Flu Pandemic of 2005, DEF CON, like many other institutions, had to adapt. The Pandemic proved fatal for about 40% of humanity, a total of about 2.5 billion people worldwide."

    "Please join with me for a moment of silence in their memory."

    Drecnet and Kari looked it up online. In 2005 about 3,700 flu test kits with Avian flu were mistakenly sent to labs all around the world. However in this world, unlike in theirs, efforts were not made to fully secure the flu in these kits, which escaped, mutated, and caused the massive pandemic.

    "The full extent and effect was more devastating than any other similar event in human history. Like the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, it did not affect all countries or regions equally. Like the Black Death of the Middle Ages, it drastically changed virtually every organization in society.

    "The infection spread across the world in many different waves until 2008 when it subsided and the vaccine started to be distributed. In addition to the immediate deaths from infection, the pandemic contributed to many other deaths from the cascading effects of lack of electric power, which disabled many other critical infrastructures such as drinking water and food production.

    The drastic reduction in manpower of world governments and aid organizations also impeded efforts to recover from, and magnified the devastation and social disorder that resulted from, the many natural and man-made disasters that have occurred since 2005, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, the 2008 Afghanistan blizzard, the Myanmar Cyclone of 2008, and the 2011 T?hoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which contributed to the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant disaster.

    "I am pleased to report that since 2005, DEF CON, DEF CON groups worldwide, other hacker groups, and millions of individual hackers around the world rose to the challenge and provided invaluable assistance to governments, corporations, non-profits, and people throughout the world. Their first challenge was to keep the networks going as they were overwhelmed by the increased traffic from the millions of people who were staying home to avoid getting infected. They then helped recovery efforts, which unfortunately still need to continue, to restore basic services and critical infrastructures all around the world.

    "This community provided invaluable assistance worldwide to restore telecommunications, keep the internet functioning, and to keep the computers and electronic devices working on which the world depends.

    "Furthermore, our collective efforts also helped make the world more democratic [small "d"], and promoted local efforts for self determination. The experience of many of our groups in developing "liquid democracy" that enables every citizen to take a direct role in decision making through secure internet voting, was offered and then used by many peoples throughout the world. Well, as secure as we can make it, still a work in progress.

    "Consequently, many of the goals we have been pursuing and supporting to keep the internet, and information, free, have now succeeded in most areas of the world. Hackers, and hacker groups, are now fully trusted members of the community on which many people depend to help continue the recovery from this massive catastrophe. Like the ‘consent of the governed’ the new principle of ‘consent of the networked’ seems to be on its way to becoming a reality worldwide.

    "Through the electron and the switch, then, humanity has come together to cooperatively recover from this disaster. The process has been very bumpy, of course, and some regions are worse off than others, but the overall trend is upward and we should all be hopeful for a better tomorrow for all.

    "As you can see in the program and on our web page, DEF CON now offers more than the traditional program on computer and information technology hacking. We now include a number of train-the-trainer sessions in many of the technologies still needed to promote the recovery of civilization – drinking water, electric generation and transmission, public education, building construction and rehabilitation, networking, and so many more.

    "DEF CON has grown, we now encompass five other hotels, who are seeing this talk remotely, in Las Vegas this week. We have millions of dollars in funding from the United Nations to build a worldwide system of hacker spaces to serve as a resource to local populations. It seems the idea of DEF CON, the hacker spirit, is now being acknowledged worldwide, and of course we are glad to help any way we can."

    "Lets take a short break and then we’ll go over the program for this week’s conference. Thanks again for coming."

    "Wow," Drecnet and Kari said in unison..

    "Well, it’s been a long day," she said. Lets get out of here and get a hotel room where we can get some sleep. Their eyes met.

    "OK, let’s go."


    © 2012 John McNabb
    Last edited by Nikita; June 1, 2012, 02:48. Reason: Fixing Formating