NaNoWriMo 2013/2016

Chapter 16

Allison’s characterization of his sense of justice stung a little bit. In fact, everything about talking with her stung a little bit, and what a thrill that was. It’s not often that you are tempted to tell someone that their most attractive feature is their tongue.

Putting aside the confluence of his wit and his libido, Chip went home and busied himself getting set for a truly deep dive into the layers of computer networks that made up a modern city. Nothing technological ever went away and even 20 years ago when Chip was just getting started logging into various forums and websites, governments were already a bewildering amalgamation of legacy computer systems. Sometimes, an outdated system that broke down even needed to be emulated using a custom-made program on a newer computer system.

It had been over a decade since those early high school days of exploration, but very little ever changed in this world, so certainly the proliferation of outdated computer systems that kept governments running would have continued apace. The reason this excited the slightly lawless part of Chip’s problem solving mind was that the numerous interfaces between all of these different systems each exposed a possible chink in the city’s armor. It was just a matter of finding the joints between the scales on the slimy underbelly of the government IT systems.

What Chip was about to do was of questionable legality. Anti-hacking laws were as ridiculous and draconian as ever and any person who read an article that described how to circumvent the copy protection on a movie file could potentially be charge with a felony. At the same time, open access laws for government had been expanded in the computer age with a series of lawsuits opening up more and more of the government’s data stores for direct public scrutiny. Chip hoped desperately that the mild hacking he was about to engage in would someday be seen as accessing data that belonged to the citizens rather than as violating the security of a sensitive government computer system.

In spite of his hope, Chip took some precautions. In addition to the large carafe of cold-brewed coffee concentrate that he lovingly prepared, he also set out a series of prepaid data SIM cards. None of the major carriers would carry these anymore, but there were still open access laws for the wireless spectrum, so small carriers could pop up to sell what the big companies would never stoop to: burner data plans. Similar to prepaid cell phones that used to be used by criminals and then dropped in trash bins, now it was burner SIM cards which could similarly be used to push bits anonymously onto the global networks and then discarded when they were used up. The best restrictions that the lawyers had been able to get limited the amount of data that could be sold this way without an account. So Chip had quite a stack of cards on the desk in front of him.

Putting in his custom molded ear buds, Chip put on some soft downtempo electronica to soothe his inner critic and enter what programmers thought of as the zone, a place where what were only complicated patterns of electrostatic charges in silicon wafers scattered around the planet began to take on abstract analogic patterns in the mind of the programmer. Navigating the inconsistencies of these analogies was the essence of programming and of hacking.

Rather than switching his phone off to preserve the focus necessary for this work, Chip instead pulled the tracked and snooped Verizon SIM from his phone and slotted in the first burner SIM card. Now, as far as the global network was concerned, Chip’s phone had ceased to exist and a new one had turned on and no messages would be routed to him because this new phone had never existed before so no one would ever message it.

Chip didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he began at the beginning on the city’s official website. With a little digging, he found the place where they stored old meeting announcements and agendas but there was no sign that those listings were ever updated with anything after the meeting happened. In a completely separate part of the city’s website, he found the place where minutes were posted from official board of supervisors meetings, but since this had been an ad hoc task force, they weren’t publishing minutes in the same places.

On a hunch, chip tried the city’s energy management department to see if he could find any information on the room where the meeting had been held. In an effort to tout their environmental friendliness, the city was posting live graphs of energy usage and production from the photovoltaic roofing tiles that they had recently installed with a grant from the federal government. He could scan back over the previous days to see the electricity demand of each city building on an hourly basis, but all he could tell from that was that the building had been running its lights and climate control that evening as opposed to all of the other evenings when it was basically turned off energy-wise.

From that dead end, Chip was led to the city engineer’s office where he found his first chink in the armor. In another abortive attempt at transparency, someone at the engineer’s office had set up a shared document space so that people could presumably track the status of building permits online. Due to an error in the default configuration (well publicized on various web forums), this software ended up sharing the entire contents of the computer where it was installed in the same document-oriented interface that was used for the building permits. Since this was something done at about the level of a summer internship, the computer that had been designated for this was just a basic office PC that seemed to mostly be used for writing grant proposals and nasty letters to people who didn’t keep their lawn mowed.

Chip worked his way back in time through the proposals as he tried to build up a mental version of the structure of the city’s computer systems. This was complicated by the fact that it was hard to tell which of these grant proposals had been funded and built, so for each one he had to go searching around to see if he could find other evidence that the systems that were discussed had actually come into existence. In most cases, directing Google to search through the minutes of the finance sub-committee of the Board of Supervisors would reveal a discussion of the reimbursement from this agency or that.

When Chip had waded back in time to the early teens, he found his next chink in the armor. There was a proposal to get money for video surveillance equipment for city buildings. Apparently the school shooting fad had stirred up enough fear among state bureaucrats that they had put up a pool of money for cities to install cameras in all of their buildings. It was obvious that the intended use was for school districts and hospitals and such, but the skinflints in Fredrickton had decided that they should apply for a system that would blanket the whole municipal building. Since much of the space was shared between the city and the county and the school board, they argued that they needed cameras in every meeting room, since there was no telling when you might be holding a school board meeting in the planning and zoning office and some second amendment nut showed up on the wrong night.

Like the others, there was no notation on whether or not the project had ever been funded and the company specified in the proposal didn’t show up in the finance minutes anywhere. A bit stumped, but beginning to feel a glimmer of truth glinting at the end of this rabbit hole, Chip went and read the news reports on the company that was supposed to have built the system that the city was going to buy. He found that they had been acquired by a larger competitor right around the time that the grant proposal would have been going through.

The larger competitor’s name hit the jackpot in the minutes. There had been a purchase made from them that had to be discussed in committee before the check could be cut, even though they were just spending someone else’s money. Reading up on the company’s product line and the few specifications that appeared in the original grant proposal, Chip was able to make a pretty good guess about just which system the city had installed. It looked like the cameras would all feed their footage back to a central server whic could then be accessed via a web interface from inside the city’s network. Not everyone in the world could watch what happened in every room in every city building, just anyone on the city’s network.

With a tiny slip towards the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Chip inserted himself into the public library’s wireless network. Now it looked to the rest of the network as if he was sitting in one of the library’s electronic reading rooms. From there, it was a simple shortcut through the circulation computers using a publicly disclosed security vulnerability that would never be fixed on these computers because the operating system they were running was so old that the company who made it had stopped issuing security updates for it. Now, Chip was working from within the city’s internal network and it took some guessing, but he was eventually able to pull up the web front end of the video recording system.

Now, he was a little bit stuck, both ethically and legally. The login prompt asked for a username and password and included a disclaimer to the effect that unauthorized use was a violation of relevant statutes at the federal level, obviously put there by the company who made the system to make themselves sound tough. Chip hesitated to break the law quite so directly in this hare-brained scheme and he felt like he would be crossing some kind of line if he broke in directly through the front door.

As a way around to the back door, Chip backtracked a few steps and forged some emails from the work computer of a library staff member asking for access to the video server to track a persistent book thief. The final chink in the armor was that the system that granted access to the video server automatically replied with a new username and password to any email that it received from a city employee. So, by sending a fake email as a city employee, Chip got a quick and friendly response that invited him to walk right in through the front door, no breaking and entering needed.

Now he was in where he had hoped to be when he started. There were directory listings sorted by date and for each day there were folders for each camera in the system. He considered reviewing the tapes from the police station to see if he could blow the whistle on Detective Parsons for donut emebezzling or some such minor ethics violation, but he kept his eye on the prize and clicked through to date of that fateful evening meeting. It took a while to figure out the naming convention used for the cameras, but comparing the city map against the directory names, he made a guess and pulled up a listing of 24 files, one for each hour of the day.

His pulse raced a little bit as he scrolled down to the file for the 7:00 hour. He was screwing up the courage to start watching when the first of his SIM cards ran dry.

“Shit!” he screamed into his empty apartment. His zone was interrupted and he was surprised to see that while he had been deep in the world that existed inside his screen, the sun had gone down in the world that existed all around him. Now, sitting in his dark apartment illuminated only by the glow of the computer screen, Chip had to take a deep breath as he realized what he was about to do. Exhaling that breath, he jacked in the next SIM card and took a few shortcuts to get quickly back to where he had been when his data supply ran out.

He tried clicking on the file to start watching, but it was in some esoteric video compression format that his browser didn’t understand. He had to be content downloading the file onto his laptop and while he was at it, he grabbed the files for the rest of the hours up until midnight. He went through a couple more SIM cards before he got all of the video from that night, although the last file was considerably smaller since the compression algorithm didn’t need to store the blank picture of the darkened room more than once.

The video player already on his computer didn’t know how to play the file either, but Chip easily found an open source video player that numbered the strange surveillance camera format among the hundreds of codecs that it could handle. Inhaling and exhaling again, Chip started the tape playing. It was very strange to see himself as a tiny little person in the extremely wide angle view of the meeting room. The camera was up high in the back of the room looking over the shoulders of the board into the faces of the audience. It captured the whole audience, but the people in the back were a bit indistinct. The podium was in the center of the frame and the slightly fisheye effect of the camera’s lens made it look like it loomed over both the audience and the supervisors.

Chip figured that he had plenty of time to watch this over and over again and so for now he fast forwarded to the money shot. He saw when Don Mockson’s associates stood up from their chairs and began chanting. He could watch the blood come into Buck Lemaire’s face and finally, he could watch Buck jump from his chair and Don fall to the floor with the shape of his body slightly distorted by the camera optics.

Mostly, everything he saw was as he remembered. He was surprised at the way that his mental movie matched up with the movie playing on his screen. The outsized perspective of the camera was different than the outsized perspective that his recollection placed on the incident, but distortions aside, he was pleased to find out that he wasn’t as far off as he had feared.

The strange coincidence that Allison had pointed out between Buck’s shout and Don’s descent was apparent even though there was no soundtrack. It was clear from the movements of his mouth when he was shouting and Chip used the slider to go back and forth over the two moments. In the video version of events, Buck’s eruption actually occurred slightly before Don began to fall to the ground. Chip could see how Allison might have been confused because Don’s shock sequed smoothly into the motion of falling backwards so that it looked like he starting falling as soon as Buck shouted. After reviewing the frames over and over, Chip decided that Don had been first surprised and then a split second later had begun to fall to the ground. Using the listed frame rate of the video camera system, Chip was actually able to quantify how long the split second between those two events was.

Chip began to search the video for evidence that Don Mockson had not had a stroke. Of course, you couldn’t see a stroke with a camera, but the thought of Don’s blood vessels reminded Chip of a piece of technology that had appeared in an old video game system. Using an ordinary CCD video camera like one would find in a computer for videoconferencing, there was enough color detail to actually discern the subtle variations in shade that resulted from a person’s pulse. Video game developers had used this sensor to develop personally tailored experiences that kept people at a peak level of excitement without desensitizing them. Chip wondered if the same idea could work on this surveillance video footage. The individual faces were quite a bit smaller than they would be on a webcam, but the resolution of the camera system was better, so maybe the idea had a chance of working.

The code for the video game system was still a tightly held secret, even though one hadn’t sold at retail for years, but with some digging, Chip came up with the proof of concept code that was originally published in the scientific literature. It turned out to be relatively simple to go to the author’s website and download the code. It was in an older variant of a programming language, but Chip was eventually able to reconstruct the software necessary to process the video files. With some more effort, he extracted the individual frames from the surveillance video and cropped out just the part showing Don Mockson’s face. Feeding those images into his jury-rigged pulse recognition software, he was surprised when it worked the first time.

The program output luridly colored versions of the video frames using colormaps that were chosen to highlight the minute differences in shades of pink that were hints at the blood flowing underneath a person’s skin. In addition to the false color images, there was also a simple number, 65 beats per minute. Don Mockson had been as cool as a cucumber in the moment before he died.

19 Nov 2013 2962 words