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Title:Demo Demons Author: Robert G

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  • Title:Demo Demons Author: Robert G

    As I was falling from the 207th floor window, the thought going through my head was, "That could've gone better." I was screaming, but as much out of frustration as fear. All my plans had failed today, even the backup to the backup plans. I had just one plan left, the AGRS, and if that failed, I was going to be one pissed off smudge on the pavement.


    The day started with my demo at DefCon 42, the world's largest hacker conference. This year, the con was at the Burj Las Vegas, which, at one kilometer and 220 stories, was the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It was built by a coalition of Gulf states, whose elites realized while they couldn't have fun at home, Vegas was only two hours away via scramjet. Like most Las Vegas hotels, Burj also made a great conference center. Twenty years ago, DefCon was a small, intimate conference of only 15,000 people. Today, at 200,000 attendees, the Burj was one of the few hotels that could contain it.

    I was almost late to my own presentation in Ballroom 5j, "Cold War Tech Revisited, by Martin Woodford". I thought I had an afternoon slot, but somebody had hacked the conference system putting me into an early morning 9am slot. I'm sure it was IceBrain, getting revenge for me having done that to him last year. I needn't have worried, though, half the audience was late as well, barely awake and recovering from last night's partying.

    I put my Specs on. I had a cool Preso app that told me which direction to face, highlighting the audience members I needed to make eye contact with. The Specs also recorded my hand gestures to control the presentation. I clenched my fist to dim the lights and turn on the big screen at the front of the room. Speaking in my most authoritative voice, I started the presentation.

    "This is a Las Vegas limousine", I described the picture that popped up on the big screen. "Self driving, sound shielded, and immune from listening devices. If you attempt to 'accidentally' leave behind a recording device, like your phone or Specs, the limo detects the excess weight and beeps at you, refusing to move until you recover your device. Because of this privacy, limos have replaced hotel rooms as the preferred location for private business meetings, illicit drug deals and cheating on spouses."

    "The command 'just drive' now accounts for 7% of all limousine rides, forcing city planners to rename 'Jess Drive' to 'Hokum Avenue' in order to make the voice recognition work. It's true, look it up on Wikipedia!" The audience laughed. I could see a few of them actually look it up. It wasn't true, of course, but I'd edited the Wiki the night before, so it would become true.

    "So how do we hack the limos and eavesdrop on them? I suggest something like this, a relic of cold war technology." I gestured and my Specs popped up a *picture of the Great Seal of the United States on the big screen. "This was a gift by the Soviets to the United States Embassy in 1952. After weeks of analysis, scientists confirmed the plaque contained no listening device. But in fact, it did, but a purely passive one, like modern RFID tech. The Soviets would bounce a focused beam off the plaque in order to activate it."

    I pulled out one of my metallic decals and slapped it on the front of my podium. "And this is the modern equivalent. It weighs a fraction of a gram and emits no radio waves until activated. Slap them on the insides of limos, aim a beam at them, and you'll be able to hear everything that goes on inside. And, since the decals aren't technically an electronic listening device, they are totally legal."

    I gestured again, and the big screen changed to my live demo. A map of Vegas appeared with moving red dots. "As a demonstration, I've put a number of decals in limos over the last few days. Let's see if we can listen in." I had radio equipment up in room that would send beams of radio waves across Vegas.

    Most of the dots were static, but some were wiggling, indicating they were picking up sound. I gestured to highlight one of them. Sound filled the ballroom. It was obviously human voices, but garbled. Either the radio beam wasn't aimed right, or the decal wasn't placed right.

    "Well, no demo works perfect the first time," I said, embarrassed. "Let's try another." I selected dot after dot, but I got the same results, getting garbled voices or white noise. Finally, on the last possibility, I got a clear, intelligible voice.

    ["...wasn't happy. You broke your promise."] A foreign voice boomed out over the speakers in the ballroom. The demo worked. The audience dutifully applauded my success. I mentally offered a thankful prayer to the demo gods.

    It wasn't just audio. Eavesdropping was good, but I'd added a flourish. Information started popping up on the screen.

    "As you can see, my code is live-streaming up to Blather, just as you would stream live from your Specs. In the same way that Blather voiceprints the audio and downloads avatars for augmented reality, my code identifies the speaker. As you can see, his name is 'Ruy Mesquita', 29 years old, from São Paulo, and I'm man enough to admit it, Mr. Mesquita is a pretty handsome guy." Laughter. Good, my demo had gone from near disaster to something entertaining.

    I let the eavesdropping continue a bit for effect, hoping I wasn't catching anything too embarrassing for Mr. Mesquita.

    ["Give us the key, Nakamura. This won't go well for you … or your family"], Mesquita's voice continued.

    ["Please, let go of me. The key is 9173283..."]. The Nakamura guy rattled off a string of numbers. His on-screen avatar was blank. He must not have been a Blather user; unusual -- but not unheard of.

    Without warning, the audio cut out. A proctor walked on stage with a microphone.

    "Sorry, we're over the time limit," the proctor said. "We need to make way for the next speaker. Let's give a round of applause to Martin for his great demo. I, for one, will watch what I say in taxis from now on!" I bowed to the clapping audience. Hacking demos at DefCon never worked perfectly, I'd done as well as could be expected. But, as I was about to find out, the demo had failed in another way.


    As I walked out of the conference room, two men in suits quickly cornered me. They were definitely Feds. In the early DefCons, guys like these two tried to blend in, and it was great fun trying to "spot the Fed". Now they dressed to stand out, complete with black suits and even the retro-tech of earpieces attached with spiral cords.

    "Mr. Woodford, a moment of your time, please," said the taller guy. I'll call him Fed #1. He did all the talking. Fed #2 quietly took the notes and never said a word. Unlike the rest of the world, Feds don't record anything. They write notes, on paper. They write down the version of events that works in their favor rather than the events that actually happened. If you ever want to piss off a Fed, just set your Specs to 'record'.

    "I decline to answer questions on the grounds it may incriminate me," I said, even before he could ask me a question. Like all hackers, I'm trained in the art of legal defense. Never lie to a Fed, but never answer their questions either -- even if you're innocent. Especially if you're innocent. Answers, even truthful, can only harm you.

    "Don't worry, you aren't being arrested. You aren't a suspect in a crime. We would just like to talk to you privately," said Fed #1.

    "Am I being detained?" I asked. Even when cops don't want you to leave, they generally won't detain you, either. They're just hoping you'll be a sheep and go along with their suggestions, even if you aren't required to by law. By forcing the issue, they'll admit that you can leave, and I was preparing to do just that.

    "Yes, Mr. Woodford, we are placing you in protective custody. This way please," Fed #1 motioned for the hotel exit. Crap. My great techniques didn't work. At least I wasn't handcuffed as I got into their car.


    The interrogation room was exactly the bland sort of thing you'd expect from the movies, complete with the one-way mirror. In person, though, it's a lot more intimidating than on screen. They make you wait, stewing in your own paranoia. Even when you know what they are doing, the technique works.

    After a suitable amount of time, my two Feds came into the room, sitting down across the table from me.

    "We'd like to know more about your talk," Fed #1 started the conversation.

    "I told you, I'm taking the fifth. I want my lawyer," I responded.

    Fed #2 pulled out a file, an actual paper file (the Feds are so retro), and tossed it over to me. It was all about me, all my hacks, even my first ones 10 years ago. After my first panic subsided, I realized it was partly a bluff. Some of the evidence was wrong, made up, to trick me into thinking they had more evidence than they really did. If they had real proof, they'd have probably arrested me a long time ago. I don't think most of it would've held up in court, but the remaining bits could get me some jail time if they decided to push it. I was suitably threatened.

    "We have enough evidence in that file to put you away for a very long time, Mr. Woodford. But we're willing to overlook all that if you cooperate with us," said Fed #1.

    "Okay, the way my trick works is with a simple passive decal that I bounce radio waves off of, in order to..." I started to explain.

    Fed #1 held up his hand. "Not the technical information, please. We don't have doctorates in engineering. We don't know what a 'decal' is. We just want to know if you have a recording of the rest of the taxi conversation from your talk, before you were cut off."

    "Uh, yeah, I assume so. It's up on my Blather account. It'll have everything up to the point until they got out of the car, or until the taxi drove out of beam range. I can download that for you." I put my Specs in playback mode and handed them to Fed #2, who put them on and wrote down all the digits that Nakamura guy had recited.

    "Great, that's the first item. There's a second one, as well. Ruy Mesquita is an enforcer for the Brazilian crime syndicate. His boss, Gustavo da Silva, is in town this week. We want to get him before he goes back to Brazil, where he'll be safe from extradition. But we we've got nothing on him, not even jaywalking. We think you can help."

    "How's that?"

    "He's going to want that recording, too. He's probably got guys around the Burj right now looking for you. He'll threaten you in order to destroy all copies. When he does so, bam! We've got him. It's enough to get him jail for a while, and to get Brazil to cough up his bank account information, which will allow us to jail him permanently."

    "Threaten?" I squeaked. I didn't like the sound of that.

    "Don't worry, you won't be in any danger. We'll have agents around you at all times, just out of sight. Here, take this." The Fed passed me what appeared to be a normal dollar coin across the table. "This is a locator. It uses a frequency their equipment can't detect. Keep it in your pocket. If you get into danger, squeeze it, and we'll rescue you. Just don't squeeze it until da Silva has made his threat, or else we'll lose him, and he'll be free to come after you when we won't be there to protect you."

    I spent the next hour with the Feds, going through the plan piece by piece. Then they drove me back to the Burj.

    You might be wondering why I'd agree to be bait like this. The Brazilian narco lords were notoriously bad guys. Avoiding a couple years in prison wasn't worth getting shot. But I had a plan. All good hackers keep the best exploits for themselves. Even if the Feds couldn't protect me, I was pretty sure I could protect myself. But we'll get to that in a bit.

    The thugs caught up with me before I made the elevator.

    "Mr. Woodford? Martin Woodford?" the taller of the two shook my hand. "I'm so glad we found you. Our boss was fascinated by your presentation this morning and would like a word with you. He wants to discuss a business arrangement he thinks you'll find most agreeable."

    The timing was right on script, but their accent wasn't; it sounded Arab, not South American. They were the wrong thugs.

    "I'm sorry, but I've got another meeting to get to. If you give me your card, I'll give you a call later and-- Ayeeee!" The taller thug wasn't so much pinching my arm as tearing a chunk of muscle clear off the bone.

    "I think you'll find your other affairs can wait." He brushed against me so I could feel the gun in his pocket. I went limp and let them bustle me into the elevator. He swiped his phone and pressed the button for a penthouse suite on floor 207.

    The apartment was impressive, two stories tall, windows from floor to elevated ceiling. The furnishings were crisp, modern, and tasteful.

    A tall, white-bearded but energetic, old man arose from the couch. He had a European accent and a western-style pinstripe suite, but wore the traditional Arab 'keffiyeh' on his head.

    "I'm so glad you came, Mr. Woodford," he said. Sigh. I was getting tired of men in suits with guns calling me that today. Nobody had called me "Mr. Woodford" in years.

    "Yeah, uh, me too," I stammered, not sure of the correct etiquette. What does one say? Glad my arm wasn't broken?

    "Come, sit with me. Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee, perhaps?" He waved to my escorts, who stoically took up positions next to the door. Since I was going nowhere, I made myself comfortable on the indicated couch, accepting the coffee my host poured for me.

    "My name is Faisal Hijazi. I'm in town to do business with some men whom you have not yet met," he said, pouring another cup for himself from a large brass pot. "You may not realize it, but a lot of us found your presentation this morning extremely interesting. Very interesting indeed. Metallic stickers in limo cabs. So simple, yet so ingenious." He chuckled to himself.

    "But we can talk about this at a later time. I'm more interested in the conversation you picked up. The audience only heard part of it, but I'm hoping you have the rest of it, yes?"

    "You mean that string of numbers? Yes, I have it." Fed #2 had deleted it from Blather after transcribing it, but I had automated backups.

    "Excellent, yes, the string of numbers. I hope you realize that you can't use it yourself. You don't have the necessary resources. But I do. I would like to offer you one hundred million dollars for those numbers, in cash."

    I was more than a little stunned. The feds hadn't given the impression that those numbers were particularly valuable. In fact, they'd seemed downright bored by them, as if it were a routine matter.

    "Uh, sure, but what are those numbers?"

    Hijazi straightened his moustache, then spoke. "Well, there's no harm in letting you know, since the system is going to come crashing down anyway. Tell me, have you heard of Satoshi Nakamura?"

    Oh, that Nakamura, the guy who'd invented the first crypto-currency back 20 years ago, "BitCoin". He'd had a billion dollars' worth of the stuff before another cryptographer cracked the system, and he went from filthy rich to 10 million in debt in under 10 minutes. The South American drug lords paid off his debts, then forced him to create a new, better currency for them, the "NarcCoin". NarcCoin had become standard currency for most of the world's underground economy: drugs, guns, prostitution, money laundering, you name it. Hell, I had about 100 NarcCoin in my e-wallet at that moment, for a rainy day or a high-dollar escort.

    It was all becoming clear. Those weren't just numbers. They were a secret key that could unlock NarCoin. With the right key, someone could monitor any transaction, steal anybody's money, or bring the entire system down. Screw the Feds and their plan. I'd just stepped into a whole lot of trouble. I needed to get out, quickly, to a non-extradition country safe from both the Feds and the Brazilians. That required money, a few million. I needed this deal.


    Before I could accept Mr. Hijazi's proposal, the door slammed open. Men with guns quickly filled the room, yelling to get on the ground. I quickly complied. Their accents identified them as the Brazilians I was supposed to meet up with earlier. Among them, I recognized Ruy Mesquita from his Blather avatar. He really wasn't a bad looking guy.

    After making sure the room was under control, Mesquita waved through the doorway. In walked a plump middle-aged man.

    "Gustavo," spat Hijazi, bitterly. "This isn't a good idea."

    "Don't worry, Faisal." said the Brazilian boss, waving him away. "No harm will come to you. I'm here for the hacker. He's got something that belongs to me. You," he said, pointing at me, "Stand up."

    A heavy Brazilian grabbed me, lifting me to my feet. He was astonishing ugly, with the cauliflower ears of a cage fighter, and a patchwork of scars across the face. He kept a firm grip on my shirt even after I was standing.

    "Look, we aren't going to harm you. We just want to destroy that recording you made. Well, we will hurt you if we have to, but I'm sure you won't make it necessary," da Silva's detached attitude about my fate made his threats all the more menacing. "Give us the login for your account so we can verify the file and delete it. Then we'll let you go. See? Simple."

    I gave him the username and password to one of the backup accounts. Deleting yet another copy would still leave me with something I could sell to Mr. Hijazi. Not that I really believed the Brazilians would let me go. While Mesquita was tapping on a pad verifying the file, I fished into my pocket for the coin the Feds had given me and pinched it hard.

    The door blasted off its hinges. More suits, more guns. The Brazilians were better trained than the Arabs, not to mention they still had their guns in their hands and weren't lying on the floor. They immediately turned to fire at the intruders. The Arabs joined the fray, leaping forward to grab the guns they'd just tossed on the floor. Bullets were blowing giant holes in the walls. Decorative vases, a chandelier, and one of the floor-to-ceiling windows all shattered. An expensive bust of Elvis exploded, sending shards of plaster into the night outside. The howling winds at that altitude competed with the shouting men and gunfire, making a terrific noise.

    My "rescue" wasn't going well. The Feds were overwhelmed, retreating back through the door. Mr. Cauliflower-ears had his attention fixed on me, blocking me from the door. I wasn't going with the Feds -- I was going to have to rescue myself.

    "JABBERWOCKY!" I shouted.

    Remember before, when I said I had a backup plan? This was it. Last year, during a hack, I came across the sysadmin password for LodgeNet, you know, the company that runs the TVs in most hotels in Vegas? This allowed me to add my voiceprint as a backdoor to the system. Then, weeks later, I came across some interesting military research from the University of Ottawa on triggering physiological effects from visual and audio stimuli. So I copied their code into my backdoor, disabling some safety protocols along the way. When any hotel TV or phone heard my voice say the word "jabberwocky", my code would be activated.

    The effect was everything the military researchers had promised. Booming bass throbbed out of the speakers. The lamps strobed with blinding flashes at quick, irregular intervals. The cacophony of light and sound did its job. Everybody in the room stopped firing and dropped to the floor in seizures, throwing up, or desperately closing their eyes and covering their ears.

    Not me, of course. My Specs had noise cancellation and a simple LCD shutter timed with the flashes, blocking the light. I felt some nausea, but I was functional. Time to go.

    But Mr.Cauliflower-ears was functional, too. He grabbed me by the arm and threw me back. He glanced at all the writhing bodies, then stared at me, bewildered. I'd heard Brazilians cage fighters took drugs to deaden the pain. I suspect that gave him some protection against the Ottowan effect. He was tightly focused. Distractions didn't seem to be his thing. With everyone else on the floor, he pulled out his gun and took careful aim. At me.

    Down to my last option, I stepped backward to the broken window. And jumped.


    Among the things I had discovered in my LodgeNet hack was the Burj's Active Guest Recovery System, or AGRS. Outside video cameras would detect falling bodies. At the 30th floor, flexible arms with nets would shoot out and catch them.

    I had about 20 seconds to contemplate what had gone wrong over the past day, but it was a very intense 20 seconds. When the thugs picked me up, I should've screamed at the top of my lungs. I should've told the Feds where to shove their folder. I should've stopped the recording early, before it picked up those numbers. In those seconds, I even figured out what was causing the other voices to be garbled.

    Then, I saw the friendly arm of the AGRS swing out to catch me. I landed in the net, hard, breaking my nose. The arm bent alarmingly, absorbing the impact. This was actually the scariest moment of the fall. I was sure the arm would break, but then it swung back up again, pulling me inside the building.

    Armed guards were waiting to arrest me. Suicide is legal in Nevada, but throwing things off a 200 story building is felonious endangerment of the bystanders below. I didn't feel like explaining that my jump wasn't entirely voluntary, but after a bit of jabberwocky, the guards didn't seem interested in detaining me.


    My plans hadn't turned out well. But, as I sat at the bar, icing down my nose and self-medicating, watching CNN, I was consoled by the fact that nobody else's plans turned out, either. The two crime bosses died in the firefight. All the feds survived, thanks to their standard issue synthweave armor, but most were in the hospital. The Fed's plan to take down the syndicates didn't work, as new crime bosses quickly took over from the dead ones.

    Satoshi's key? It turned out to be useless. A cryptographer in the audience used a university supercomputer to brute force the remaining digits after that proctor shut down my demo. While I was falling from the tower, she was on CNN announcing the full key. The disclosure crashed NarcCoin before the FBI could use the key to trace any transactions or the Arabs could steal any money. I wasn't getting my 100 million dollar payout, but, on the bright side, I wouldn't have to go into hiding, either.

    Also, as it turns out, Ecuador and Bolivia had become more dependent on NarcCoin than economists realized, and their economies were crashing hard and fast. Even that cryptographer, basking in her 15 seconds, was in for a bad day in the very near future, when the drug lords came looking for somebody to create a replacement cryptocurrency for them. It was a bad day all around.

    The one thing that still gets me, though, is... What happened to Satoshi Nakamura?
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."

  • #2
    Re: Title:Demo Demons Author: Robert G

    The more things change, the more things stay the same. Human condition never upgrades.

    Good Luck!
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."