Chip returned to his loft as the low afternoon sunshine was casting orange rectangles across his elegantly distressed flooring. The floors may have just been old, but the landlord had insisted that they added authenticity to the loft experience. It wasn’t clear what quality they were authenticating, but Chip suspected that it was his gullibility that they proved more than anything else.
As he took off his jacket, he slipped out his laptop and tried to make sense of what all he had seen that day. It seemed like it had been days since he had sat on the tall stool at the kitchen counter ready to immerse himself in the technicalities of embedded software and hardware development. Now, here he was at the end of the same day having talked to a widow, a corpse, and a police officer and he didn’t have much of anything to show for it.
A sophisticated computer hack had been discovered around breakfast time and he had been completely distracted from that possibly gainful employment by his curiosity on the topic of Don Mockson’s apparently accidental death. Mrs. Mockson hadn’t offered his curiosity much help, apart from her skepticism about Mr. Mockson’s emotional state at the time of his death. The morgue hadn’t been nearly as revealing as it had been disturbing. He had hoped for a dramatic revelation of an undiscovered wound, but all he had found was a slight discoloration. And the police officer had been rude and condescending, but not particularly investigatory.
Chip tried to tidy up the loose ends that he had left with his whirlwind day. First, he took the captured traffic from Ellen Suffolk’s network and sent it off to a specialized internet site. The site had originally been a proof of concept to demonstrate that a particular form of encryption used between two computers was vulnerable. As a kind of stunt, the researcher who discovered the vulnerability had put up a website where he offered to extract the encryption key from any captured network traffic within a day’s time. Once you had that information, you could go to another site and use that key and someone else’s computer time to deduce the contents of the original messages moving over the network. With a few emails and one large upload, Chip started off the process that should get him a peek into what the hackers were doing on Ellen’s desktop computer.
Taking the loose ends in order, he tried to do some research online about dead bodies and blotchy skin, but there was no magic keyword to get a handle on it. Googling for “How should a dead body look?” wasn’t yielding any sorts of answers that he even wanted to contemplate, so he abandoned his search. Medical information was notoriously hard to extract from online searches because they used a sort of bastardized latinate lingo for every simple thing. You couldn’t search a medical journal for “bruises” because they were called “subdural hemo something or other” and keyword searching was still no good at getting you what you meant rather than what you said.
Finally, he logged in to various public records databases to see what he could find out about Buck Lemaire’s past transgressions. There were some court filings which were sealed, even to his forceful probings of various access control restrictions, but from what he could see, there was just one major incident that the detective might have been referring to. 10 years ago, near the time that Chip would have been leaving for Oregon, Buck Lemaire was working for a local construction company that had won some contracts for doing roadwork on the federal highways in the area. That work must have involved a prodigious amount of heavy equipment, because Buck tried to liberate some of the machinery, figuring that no one would notice. But they did notice and they eventually tracked down a front-end loader and skid loader at Buck’s parent’s farm out in the country.
He hadn’t tried to hawk them online or sell off the parts, but he seemed to be making use of the machinery for its intended purpose, just for his own ends rather than those of his employer. The construction company didn’t just fire him and get the trucks back and call it even. No, they sued him for whatever the legal term for tractor kidnapping is. The original complaints were available online if you knew how to take the file numbers from one county database and feed them into another to see scans of the actual pages that had been filed with the court. Chip could download them and read first one version of the events and in a subsequent filing, the defense’s version of what happened, which seemed to be that Chip had thought that it was within the scope of his decision-making power to drive off with a few hundred thousand dollars worth of heavy equipment to do some excavating out in the backyard.
The trail of documents available on the case petered out fairly quickly with some brief one-page filings that suggested a settlement had been reached. The case had certainly not gone to trial and while Lemaire would always be known in town as something of a roustabout now, an out of state mining company wouldn’t know any better and might be easily swayed by the bottom line to hire on a local boy with a very nice smile. Of course the detective would know what had happened to set off the court case, but since there were no dump trucks involved at the Board meeting, it was hard to suspect Buck of anything in this situation.
With the nagging questions in his mind quieted to a dull roar, Chip was able to move on to the nagging projects that had been running around in his brain all day. He sat back down with the laptop and the small, power-efficient computer that was going to be the heart of his network sniffing appliance. With enough tabs of documentation and online how-tos, Chip was able to get the tiny computer to turn on and respond to his commands. More online documentation led him to an effective open-source packet sniffing program that he could install on the limited computer that should do the job. Once he had what he thought would be a working prototype, he unplugged his own internet router where it still had a cable running into the wall and connected a throwing star network tap in the line.
He let the small spying device he had built run for a little while collecting network data and then thumbed out the tiny memory card that held the stored data. Putting it into a plastic adapter, he was able to plug the memory right into the laptop and see how it had worked. With a little swearing brought on by the late hour and the fact that the memory card was completely blank after his first attempt, Chip debugged his way through the problems until he was looking at a history of his own online activity on the screen in front of him. He shivered a little to realize how vulnerable the digital world was to intrusion from the physical world. If someone could come into your house and lay their hands on your networking equipment or your computer itself, then there is no telling what details the could be collecting about your activities.
He ran a few more tests on the device, including using encrypted communications on his own internal network. When he was confident that the device would do what it needed to, he set it aside and planned to take it out to Ellen Suffolk’s house in the morning. He looked up from the narrowly focused state he had been working in and was surprised to find that it was already after midnight and he really needed to get some food and get himself off to bed. He made himself a hummus sandwich and cleaned up a little of the mess that he had made of his workbench that was really one of the kitchen counters. While cleaning up what he had changed on his computer, he made a snap, paranoid decision to not turn off the encryption on his home network that he had been using just as a test. As he figured out how easy it was going to be to do what he intended tomorrow morning, he realized that it would be almost equally easy for someone to do the same thing back to him. He double-checked the settings to make sure that the cypher he was using to obscure his traffic was secure against the currently known threats.
Dumping the plate from his sandwich into the sink with the other plates from the other sandwiches that he had been subsisting on since moving in, he flopped down on his bed and for yet another night in a row, he fell into an ehausted sleep literally before he hit the mattress.