Ellen looked surprised that Chip could somehow know what someone at the mining company had looked at on her stoically frozen computer, but when Chip dived behind the desk, she remembered the small computer that he had left behind that was tapped into her network cable with the little throwing star-shaped network tap and the nest of ethernet cables that swathed it.
From behind the desk Chip crowed “When I first got this traffic decrypted, I just saw that it was video data that was streaming from your computer off over the network to another computer somewhere else. That was all I needed to know at the time about what was happening on your computer while you couldn’t get into it. But now, I should be able to reconstruct the video streams from the sent packets and we can watch exactly what they were watching on their end.”
Chip emerged from behind the desk with the little credit-card sized circuit board that was a complete computer even though it looked more like something that someone had forgotten to put away after the science fair. He popped out the thumbnail-sized memory card and grabbed an adapter out of one of his many pockets that enfolded the memory card and gave it a plug on one of its ends that could go directly into his laptop. He extracted the laptop from the lumbar pocket of his jacket and set it carefully on the desk as far as possible from the charred remnants of the disk drives as if he didn’t want his laptop to get infected with their malefiscence. He also didn’t join the wireless network in Ellen’s basement for fear of getting tagged by the same thing that had rendered her PC so outwardly uncommunicative. Instead, he paired his laptop with his phone so that its network traffic would go out over the relatively anonymous endpoint that his cell phone provider maintained on the public internet.
He needed the internet connection on his laptop because he had no idea how to do what he had in mind. He tuned out Ellen who perched on the desk over his shoulder and tuned in to a succession of web forums that led him to better search terms which led him to more secretive web forums which had discussions of programs related to what he wanted to accomplish. Finally, following the online identities of some of the people who were participating in those web forums, he tracked down other things that they had written online. (How many different people would use the screen name “darkTrollNuts2345” to talk about network traffic replay attacks?)
Chip didn’t find anyone who talked about doing exactly what he had in mind, but he saw some things that were close enough that Chip began to put together a possible solution for taking the streams of tiny chunks of data that flowed over a computer network and put them together into a video that could be watched on the screen. The basic idea of what he was going to try to do was to set up a virtual computer inside of his laptop that would stand in for their unknown adversary’s computer that was receiving the network traffic. The virtual adversary that Chip set up had its own virtual computer network inside and Chip found a couple of tools that could take the packet captures that he had on the tiny memory card and play them back into the virtual computer network as if they were really happening.
It was sort of like setting up his own Matrix where the computer that lived inside his laptop was being fed the exact information over the network that had gone down the network to their adversary. If Chip could figure out how to set the virtual computer up similarly enough to the real one on the other end, he could feed it stimulation that would cause it to react in the same way that the real computer would have in that situation. This was a type of what is known as a “replay attack” where input is repeated over again for a nefarious purpose. Most replay attacks were used for breaking various codes, but in this case, the code had already been broken, but Chip and Ellen just wanted to see a literal instant replay of what had been happening shortly before things got crispy.
It took Chip the better part of two hours to work out the details of his plan. He copied the contents of the memory chip onto the laptop’s internal memory so that it could stream more quickly over the virtual network device. It took some additional analysis of the captured network traffic to guess and then confirm what program had been receiving the data on their adversary’s computer. As much as Chip loved his MacBook Helium for a slim profile and excellent reliability, he knew that the vast majority of regular computers ran Windows, so he started with a Windows virtual machine and went looking in the network data for clues to which video player application could have been used to view what Ellen had recorded.
He couldn’t find any applications that fit what he was seeing on the network, even looking at open source and cross-platform applications like the ones that Chip himself preferred. Finally, he took one of Ellen’s drives off the shelf and plugged it into his laptop. He found many large video files, but the software that Ellen used to catalog her videos placed a simple “index.html” web page at the top level to allow anyone with a web browser to see the videos that were present on that drive. That was the clue Chip needed and he quickly discerned the signature request and response pattern that a web browser had made to initiate the video stream, which the scaly, evil person Chip was imagining on the other end of the network had probably watched in an ordinary Internet Explorer window.
Chip wrapped up his work into a script, a short informal program that orchestrated the replaying of traffic at the appropriate times. When he was done, he looked up at Ellen and asked “Are you ready to see what they were seeing before they decided to smoke your drives?” She gave an unsteady nod and Chip thumped the “enter” key on the command he had written. Inside the Windows virtual machine, the Internet Explorer window that Chip had opened blinked into life and began to reel off a flapping, chaotic scene of water birds splashing in a broad, shining puddle.
The video was shot in the late afternoon and the low sunshine over the bluff behind the quarry turned the water into a liquid silver gray. Birds that were nothing like the juncos and house sparrows that rambled outside Ellen’s back window filled the air above the quicksilver puddle with the sharp wings and bright beaks of birds who were on their way to some salty tropical destination instead of stuck in the gray middle of a continent for the winter.
“Do you see anything out of the ordinary?” Chip asked Ellen, regretting his lack of attention in AP Biology class. He didn’t think they had to learn how to identify birds for the test, but now he wished that the eggheads in Princeton had decided that was a key skill for the pre-meds of tomorrow. Instead, everything in the video looked like it had wings and most of them had tails, but Chip couldn’t imagine that any of their differences beyond that could explain the malicious destruction of all those lovely and low-entropy bits and bytes.
“Wait, stop, go back!” Ellen exclaimed.
Chip swore. That was not something that he had built his script to do. He was impressed enough with himself that he had gotten it running in the first place. He hadn’t thought to lay out a feature road map where he next added rewind capability and slow motion later in Q4. “I can’t stop. But I can go back to the beginning. Try to remember what time you saw it. We’ll just pay closer attention next time.”
He started the script over again after restarting the virtual machine to get back to a fresh browser window that would accept the messages that it thought were coming in over the network. Chip paid close attention this time, but it wasn’t lack of attention that made the bird scenes so inscrutable the first time.
“Yes, I think it was!” Ellen exclaimed when they reached the pivotal moment in the nested replay of reality that Chip was orchestrating. The original video recorded the birds meaty bodies into bits, then someone or something had unwound the bits into a visual expression of the original life of the birds, and now at one more remove, Chip was re-expressing that visual reality from a recording of its original playback of a previous original scene.
“Yes, I’m almost sure! Play it again,” Ellen demanded.
“I can do another level better than that,” Chip grinned. The second time he had started the playback, he had also started up a screen capture program that tech support workers used to make how-to videos of how to fix your computer. Instead of recording some call center flunky clicking on buttons and menus, this time the screen capture program had captured a movie file on Chip’s laptop of the other movie as it was being played back. With that final remove from consensus reality, Chip was now able to open his screen recording in a proper video player with a jog bar, slow motion replay, and freeze frames. The purported magic of digital was that this original re-recording of the playback of a digitally captured scene should be of the same quality as the very original version when it was first laid down by the light detector of an expensive camera wielded by its current viewer.
But the dream of digital was never as crisp as it had been made out to be and the multiple levels of encoding and decoding and resampling had soften the appearance of most of the pixels so that when Chip keyed forward image by image to the point that Ellen had exclaimed over twice in a row, he was looking at a slightly blurry image of a single shorebird in the foreground as it came in for a landing, highlighted against a background of the white wings of other birds.
“That’s it.” Ellen insisted. “That’s the one.”
“The one what? Who cares about this bird? What did he do?”
“Do?” Ellen gaped with some incredulousness that Chip apparently wasn’t even following the plot of the movie that they were watching together. “He doesn’t have to do anything, he just has to exist. Being in that place at that time is plenty.”
“Plenty for what?” Chip said exasperated. “Why is someone trying to burn down your house because of that one seagull!?”
“Oh, Chip, that’s no seagull, that’s a least tern.”
Chip thought, no he knew, that he had mis-heard because he didn’t think that a person could lease a turn of a road and certainly not to make a video of a bird. “Could you spell that?”
“Least L-E-A-S-T Tern T-E-R-N” Ellen recited. “Sterna antillarum if you prefer. It’s one of the birds on the endangered species list in Iowa. Anyone who sees one is supposed to report it to the DNR, the Department of Natural Resources. They’d come out and do a full investigation of the sighting to see what it meant for their preservation efforts. Everyone’s going to be really surprised that one of those guys is all the way up here.”
“Wait, can’t birds fly? Why’s it such a big deal if one of these least terns comes up to this corner of the state?”
“It’s a big deal,” Ellen responded with increasing exasperation, “because that isn’t something that birds of this species do. They make their nests on sandbars in the wide, sprawling rivers of the central plains. But now those rivers are all channelized and concreted up so the flow in nice straight lines and don’t go wandering all over the cornfields that we planted in the rich river bottoms right up against their banks which never were meant to stay in the same place for more than a few seasons. So now the least tern only nests in two sites in the entire state and both sites are where a coal power plant dumps their fly ash in the river. Since there aren’t power plants or wide plains rivers in this ‘corner of the state’ then there is no reason that we know of for those birds to come up here. Which means that we have a lot of new understanding that we have to create if we are going to understand what you just saw on that video!”
She folded her arms triumphantly and defiantly. Chip responded with a question but not a challenge. “How long does that kind of study take?”
“Who knows?” Ellen mused. “It could be years before the DNR feels ready to issue an environmental impact statement.”
“So, let me get this straight, Ellen. You unknowingly recorded the first and perhaps only sighting of an endangered bird at the B and C quarry. If the state had found out about that sighting, then they would have stepped all over the dream of mining for silica sand or anything else in the county. So someone would have a strong motive for removing this video from existence on this temporal plane. Then they could hope that nobody else sees one of these terns for a long, long time and they can go on their merry digging way.”
Ellen chewed one side of her bottom lip lightly. “It definitely makes sense that they wouldn’t want me to see this. But how did they know what they were looking for? There were hours and hours of footage on those drives.”
Chip considered, then shrugged. “Who knows why they were looking, but we know now that someone saw it and decided to act against you over the wire. But their jig is completely up, right? Once this video gets out, they’ll be shut down for good!”
Chip punctuated his statement with the thrust of a forefinger, glad to finally have a piece of success to gesture upward about instead of all of the dejected looking down he had been doing.
Then his phone beeped twice, meaning that someone had broken through the layers of disturbance-defying apps and configuration that Chip used to keep his concentration going when he was working, at least when he had been working. There weren’t many senders who could get even one beep out of his phone with their message, much less two. As Chip pulled the phone towards him, he wanted to scream “This had better be important!” like some antiquated office tyrant, but that sort of temper didn’t translate to text messaging. The message was from Allison and it was just one bad decades-old movie quote, but some algorithm somewhere thought that when a person one had just met sent it as a message, then it was worth paying attention to. The message said simply “Hasta la vista, baby”.