Chip had made it out of his drunken walk home almost unscathed. He had a little bit of lipstick on the collar of his shirt, but her was pretty sure that he didn’t have anything to be too ashamed of in the harsh morning late that poured in through the tall loft windows which of course had no curtains. He checked the clock and while he certainly had nowhere to be at any particular time, he couldn’t stand the guilt of laying around in bed too much past 10 a.m.
While he picked up his jacket from where he had slunk out of it last night on the way to his futon mattress on the floor, he thought again about the disk image he was carrying around in one the many pockets. With some patting and fumbling around, he was pretty sure that he had the right memory chip from yesterday at Ellen’s.
Using a spare thumb drive from some conference swag bag, he cloned the image and managed to get it to boot up on the old desktop computer that he had kept in a closet in his apartment in Portland out of embarassment, but which was perfectly serviceable here where no one would ever see it. The same password prompt came up when he booted from the image and he carelessly tried a couple of passwords that he made up on the spot, but the luck wasn’t with him, not even when he tried just bashing the keyboard to get random choices.
He did some more reading online about the various types of ransomware and the encryption schemes they used. It appeared that in the early days of these viruses, the weak link was how to receive the payment in a way that wouldn’t lead the Feds back to the scammer running the operation. The appearance of anonymous virtual currencies changed all of that and soon it seemed like everyone wanted to try their hand at squeezing old ladies out of their Social Security by holding their pictures of the grandkids hostage.
Most of these early viruses could be circumvented and the files safely stored somewhere else while the infected computer was wiped clean and the files copied back. In the mid-teens, someone had figured out how to put cryptography to use in this process and it got a lot harder to get around these systems. Some of the crypto they used was outdated and subject to cracking the code using various new tools, but some of it was pretty bombproof.
Poking into the contents of Ellen’s drive, it looked like she had one of the versions with really heavy duty crypto and it wasn’t likely that he could do anything about it. This one was so heavy duty that it didn’t look like anything that Chip could find on the Internet. Most viruses leave some kind of sign in the files that they are encrypting so that you can tell which virus is doing it, but this one was really subtle. There were few enough hints about which program had done this that it was actually suspicious.
Virus writers are a cocky bunch in addition to just being greedy and so they tended to leave their handles and little clues as to who they were all over the data that they locked up. This data had none of those clues at all. It was as if someone didn’t care at all if anyone knew who had created this virus.
The strangest thing of all was that this ransomware was completely ineffective. The screen with the password should have given some kind of instructions on how to send money to the crooks behind the scam, but there was nothing there but the password screen and its taunting suggestion that the right person with the right piece of knowledge could somehow get inside and get back the data that was locked up there.
Sensing that he was well in over his head, Chip prepared to call Ellen to deliver the bad news about her footage. She was gracious in defeat and even more gracious when she was the one who brought up what to pay Chip. With his sense of monetary scale dilated from life in the big city, Chip didn’t even know what to ask as a price, so he was exceptionally gratified when she told him that she had asked around and it looked like she could reasonably pay him $30 an hour. That was the lowest hourly wage he had ever received, but at least it was something coming in.
To celebrate, Chip shrugged on his jacket and decided to take a trip to the thrift store to see about some curtains and some glasses. He wanted to be prepared if someone stopped by for a drink, or if he had anything to hide. He had enough time to see what they had available, although he was unlikely to be so persnickety that he couldn’t find something that would do, then he could head over to the courthouse for tonight’s public hearing. He had been kidding a little bit when he told Lurlene that he wanted to know what was happening in civic life, but he was quite curious to see how this one went down. He hadn’t imagined that politics happened with people who you could actually see and talk to, assuming that you rated high enough for them to actually talk to you.