The number from the ad hadn’t rung more than half a ring before the elegant voice of an older lady answered “Hello, Suffolk residence”. A bit startled, since he had been wardriving for a cell phone signal and hadn’t expected to actually be connected this soon, Chip stammered his reply, “Yes, I’m calling about your ad looking for computer help”.
“Ah, yes, do you think you could help me?”
Since he had no idea what it was she needed help with, Chip decided to play it cool “I’m pretty sure I can figure it out. What kind of problems are you having?”
“I think that I might have some kind of computer flu.”
“Oh, yes, my mistake, that is what they call it.”
Not looking forward to removing the malware from some grandmother’s ancient Pentium 3 desktop, but desperate for some positive rate of change in his cash position, Chip offered to come over and take a look. He didn’t know anything about being a freelancer yet, so once he hung up the phone, he felt like an idiot for not getting some agreement on what his rate would be. Of course, he didn’t have any idea what his rate would be, so at least the drive would give him some time to figure it out.
He tried to pull up the address on Google Now, but apparently Sand Hill sounds too much like “sandal” and he had no luck on the voice recognition for Sand Hill Road. Violating numerous state laws against texting while driving and the new federal ban on distracted driving, Chip slewed across the gravel in what he thought was going to be the right way out of town while he waited for the 1G cell service to pull up the map. As it happened, he had chosen the right road out of town and he avoided the dreaded “recalculating” from the GPS lady’s voice.
Passing through corn and soybean fields barren and brown after their autumn shave, Chip headed his little plug-in hybrid further up the draw alongside a drippy creek and up the slope of what he assumed was Sand Hill. The road continued up and back for a surprisingly long way out of town, necessitating another law-defying check on his smartphone to see what distance it would be until the next change of direction. Finally, the voice announced that his destination was on the right but that seemed highly doubtful since the only thing on his right was a tall limestone bluff that seemed to tower coldly over the little car. But, to GPS lady’s credit, there was a narrow driveway marked with a reflective 911 sign whose number matched the one he had gotten from Mrs. Suffolk on the phone.
The narrow drive wound along the side of the bluff until it switchbacked on top of itself at the top and revealed a stunning vista looking out over the woodlands in the river bottoms and the tan monotony of the fallow fields on the high ground. The landscape looked as smooth as cheap polyester office carpet that had been maniacally scored by the action action of water and trees as if by some giant, disgruntled employee misusing a pair of stockroom scissors. To the west, the afternoon sun was coming down onto the high ground on the other side of the creek, while behind to the east, the top of the bluff capered along in the waving stalks of prairie grasses intermixed with rock outcroppings.
To his left, at the end of the drive was a small, unpainted board-and-batten cabin of the type favored by 1960s era immigrants to the area. He knew that the almost featureless northern side that he was staring at would be mirrored by a large sun-gathering wall of windows on the south facing exposure once he got done with the mundanities of finding a likely spot of dead grass to park on. Walking to the front door (or as the resident probably considered it the back door since it only faced the road, not the splendor of nature), Chip admired the tall plantings of native coneflowers and sunflowers beside the walk, urban gardens be damned.
When he knocked, the door was answered by a graying woman in a worn woolen shirt over a gingham dress.
“You must be Chip, please come in.”
The voice was surprisingly cultured for its weathered surroundings. Chip gaped a bit at the timber-framed cathedral ceilings opening onto the anticipated southern exposure, his mind still unaccustomed to the vastness of the landscape outside the windows. Free from the fuzzy green coating that the Earth enjoyed around Portland, the land appeared almost naked under its thin winter shift. Chip noted that the smooth tan of farm fields was broken with one jagged square of an almost white grey that nearly dominated one side of the field of view.
“Is that a quarry?”
“It was. There hasn’t been mining there for many years and there’s a small pond at the bottom of the quarry now.”
Seating him at the sturdy but scarred dining room table, his hostess proferred a teapot under a cozy and Chip assented with a nod of his head that he hoped was polite enough by old lady standards.
“Thank you Mrs. Suffolk.”
“Please Chip, you can call me Ellen. I haven’t been Mrs. Suffolk since I retired from teaching.”
Content with telling the story of his unprodigal return while he sipped the lemon balm tea, it was only when he reached the bottom of his first cup that he began to inquire about the purpose of his visit. Still shy about what he was going to get for his service, he asked “Did you say that you had a computer with a communicable disease in here?”
“I’m sorry, I was presuming on your company. Let me show you to the computer room.”
Completely demolishing his preconceptions of what computer problems a retired schoolteacher might have, Ellen led Chip down the stairs into a basement computer room that would have been right at home at Pixar or YouTube. There were dual 32-inch monitors and a sleek wireless keyboard on the desk while the slatey grey towers were tucked neatly under the desk. The walls were covered in a veritable museum exhibit of video interchange devices. From old celluloid film reels in metal canisters, they wrapped around through VHS and DV tapes, on to CDs and DVDs in meticulously labeled plastic jewel cases. The last shelf ended with a row of hard disk drives in identical USB enclosures. One of those enclosures was winking away on the surface of the desk by the two large screens.
A bit taken aback, she noticed Chip’s reaction and tried to explain. “I’ve always been interested in amateur film making. I started out taking 8 millimeter films of my kids and it sort of blossomed from there. Since I retired, I’ve been adding to my digital equipment whenever I can. I can get my head around the video software because I can just think of it like an edit deck from my film-strip cutting days, but I’m useless with anything else on the computer.”
With the invitation implicit in her apology, Chip slid into the large black leather office chair in front of the keyboard and mindlessly adjusted the knobs for better ergonomics. When you’ve worked at as many coding jobs as he had, you knew where the adjustments were on every brand of chair and you knew to make use of them to save your wrists. Wiggling the mouse, an unfamiliar login screen presented itself.
“What sort of system is this, then?” he asked, feeling growing dread that his breezy confidence on the phone was going to be misplaced.
“It’s just a Windows machine, but until yesterday I’d never seen that box before.”
Not wanting to doubt her veracity, Chip figured that there must have been an auto-update that rolled out on her system the night before.
“When did this first happen?”
“Yesterday afternoon. Why?”
“Had you been doing anything before you saw it?”
“I was just uploading my latest footage from the camera card.”
“Footage? What were you filming?”
“Birds. I’ve become something of an obsessive with capturing the local wildlife.” Afraid to become too entrenched with any sort of local obsession, Chip turned slightly back to the keyboard and began to deploy his problem solving skills. Not that he had extraordinary skills even of that kind, but fixing other people’s computers was something that a geeky boy did a lot, no matter what time zone you lived in.
He first tried some obvious default usernames and passwords like “user” and “password”. Then, other oldie-but-goodies like “monkey” and the devious “monkey123”. That about exhausted his password cracking skills, although he was vaguely aware of tools that could do much more, much faster. Sensing the need for his prosthetic brain, he slipped his laptop out from the pocket behind his back and palmed the biometrics on the lid. His computer logged into the house’s wifi network—no password—and started up its own secure private network tunnel to the Internet.
“Mrs. Suffolk—Ellen, can you give me your username and password?”
While they weren’t ones he had already tried, the password wasn’t particularly sophisticated and he thought he detected the pattern of a significant date in the pile of numbers plastered on the end in order to make “junco” palatable to some site’s crazed set of password strengthening rules. Of course that username and password didn’t do anything because if they did, then she never would have placed the ad on Craigslist in the first place, but he wanted to seem thorough.
“What is on this computer that you couldn’t bear to lose?” Chip asked as he contemplated the tech support last resort of just turning it off and back on.
“Oh, there isn’t hardly anything on the computer itself that I need. I keep the raw video on the external hard drives and just copy over the working files for my particular edit.”
She didn’t sound particularly worried, so Chip reached under the desk and held in the power button for the standards-based 10 seconds until he heard a gentle beep and the telltale hiccup in the sound of the CPU fans. The boot sequence seemed normal, but rather than proceeding to the ordinary Windows 9 login screen, it went right back to the blank black screen with the simple grey login window. Chip attempted to decipher the widget stylings on the login window to get a hint of where it had come from, but it was plain and flat enough to point to either obsolescence or the cutting edge.
Deploying a bit more of his geeky interest and the old lady’s problem became more intractable, Chip pulled his phone from his pocket and jacked in a USB cable from the phone to the computer. Using an app that made his phone behave like a CD drive, he selected a bootable image for a forensic Linux distribution. He had downloaded it a few months ago after reading a review on Slashdot and it seemed fancier to have it on hand than not to, so he had kept the large file around just in case he had to impress someone in a coffee shop with a sliver of hacker cred. Careful not to plug the phone in before the computer was rebooting, he raced to finger the right key combination to force the computer to boot from the USB drive it thought it was connected to.
As the plain grey text scrolled by as Linux booted, Chip tried to think of a piece of small talk that he could assay that would be generationally appropriate, Midwest polite, and unlikely to bore him to distraction. Failing to think of one, he just tapped his fingers nervously on the desk surface. At the shell prompt, Chip began to tap out commands that he hadn’t used in almost a decade since his dorm room forays into free software at ISU. Consulting liberally with Google and forum posts and blogs and the agglomerated knowledge of the net, Chip began to peel back the layers on Ellen’s afflicted machine.
There was still a readable hard drive there, so it wasn’t some sort of hardware issue. He could also see the removable USB hard drive that was sitting up on the desk, so the issue wasn’t there either. With a little more googling, Chip managed to work out that there wasn’t anything odd with the formats of the two drives either. It was only when he tried to see into the files on the disks that the strangeness level began to increase, suggesting not the solution to the problem, but at least a place to focus his search for such a solution.
All of the files on the disk drive were full of garbage. There were files there, but they didn’t have anything reasonable inside the files. It took him a while to track down the location of familiar items on this latest incarnation of a 35 year old operating system, but when he went to look inside simple text files, he found complete gibberish: not just mixed up letters, but characters that weren’t even in languages and that eventually made the print on screen turn colors. After more online digging, he was able to look directly at the bytes that made up those files and there was nothing but junk there too.
Thinking aloud, Chip mumbled “It’s just noise, random noise.” Vaguely remembering something he had heard on a podcast once while commuting nobly but lenghtily by bike, Chip kicked off a search on the topic of noise and he next mumbled “encryption”. At the sound of this word, Ellen seemed to finally take notice of what Chip was saying.
“What’s encryption?” she asked somewhat warily.
“It’s a way of hiding what’s on a computer from someone who doesn’t have the keys to it, metaphorically speaking.”
“But, this is my computer, why wouldn’t I have the keys to it?”
“A person like you shouldn’t even need encryption keys for their files. I don’t know why your computer would have anything like this, unless someone wanted to lock you out of your own house.”
Chip almost kicked himself under the spacious desk for not thinking of it sooner. The only reason you would see encryption on someone’s computer like this is if you wanted to use the keys to lock someone out of their own digital files. Starting in the mid teens, computer virus writers had begun to use encryption as a way to lock people out of their own computers. As the ones now holding the keys, they would demand that people who had been infected with their computer virus pay them a ransom to get their own files unlocked again. This particular money making scheme was known as ransomware and it was the digital equivalent of holding someone for ransom, but now you were holding their bits for ransom. It was kind of like someone who comes to your house, breaks in, changes the locks, and then stands out front to collect $300 before they’ll give you the new keys.
“Have you received any requests for money recently? Did this window ever mention something about sending a wire transfer somewhere or mailing in some BitCoins?”
“No, just that plain, old login window as if I’m supposed to be able to get in if I could just find the right username and password.”
Chip knew that she wasn’t supposed to be able to get in with a virus like this, but he hated to ruin her day too much more.
“How about I take an image of your hard drive and I can work on figuring out the encryption overnight? I can’t get you back in now, but most of this stuff has been cracked before and I should be able to find something on the net that will do the trick.”
“Please, be my guest, I would like to be able to get back to work on my movie.”
This was the first Chip had heard about a movie, but he lacked the social stamina to feign interest so he let the comment slide. He pulled a tiny memory chip from another pocket on his vest and slotted it into a thumb drive adapter and plugged that into the much larger slot on the front of the desktop computer. Following directions that he found at the FBI’s own site, he took a forensic image of the infected system and popped the memory card free, remembering at the last minute to zip it into yet another pocket so that it wouldn’t just mix back in with the other identical black memory cards in the first pocket. Things are cheapest on eBay when you spread the shipping costs over many units, so Chip’s vestigial frugality that he inherited from both of this parents before he left home led him to buy the little memory cards in packs of 20. He still hadn’t filled up any one of them, but her did feel good that he wouldn’t run out until long after the connectors that the cards plugged into went out of production.
Slinking back up the stairs with his geek pride hanging shabbily from his shoulders, Chip thanked Ellen Suffolk for the tea and promised that he would be in touch no matter what he found within the next day.