The Alexandria Project
Besides representing open source organizations like the Linux Foundation and scores of standards organizations, attorney and open source advocate Andy Updegrove is also a novelist. His disturbingly realistic cyber-thriller, The Alexandria Project, draws on his extensive experience representing both companies and consortia that are in the thick of cybersecurity defensive efforts. Today we offer you a glimpse:
LATE IN THE afternoon of a gray day in December, a panel truck pulled up to the gate of a warehouse complex in a run-down section of Richmond, Virginia. Rolling down his window, Jack Davis punched a code into the control box, and the gate clanked slowly out of the way. Once inside, he wheeled the truck around and backed it up against a loading dock as the gate closed behind him.
After unlocking and raising the loading dock door, Davis threw a light switch, revealing long rows of pallets, each stacked eight feet high with boxes of paper plates, cups and towels. He closed and locked the loading dock door, and stamped on the brake release pedal of a hydraulic lifter parked against the wall. Counting to himself, he pushed the lifter along the wall of pallets. When he reached row nineteen, he turned the lifter and maneuvered its long tines under the pallet. Raising it a few inches, he backed up until he could swing the pallet through 180 degrees. Then he pulled it behind him until it was back exactly where it had been before.
Davis had plenty of room to work, because where the pallet in the second row should have been, there was only a large metal plate set in the floor. Near the edge was a small hinged panel, which he unlocked with a key to expose a biometric security pad.
When Davis pressed his thumb against it, he heard a familiar click. Stepping back, he watched as the plate swung slowly upwards, followed by the telescoping ends of a ladder extending up from a deep shaft barely illuminated in red light. Grasping the ladder firmly, Davis descended through twenty feet of reinforced concrete while the door overhead swung silently closed above him. At the bottom, he remembered to don a pair of sunglasses before opening an unlocked door.
As usual, even with this precaution the bright lights in the enormous room beyond nearly blinded him. But soon he could clearly see the endless rows of floor to ceiling metal racks crammed with identical gray boxes. Each box displayed a row of rhythmically blinking lights, and sprouted a bundle of brightly colored wires that ran down into conduits embedded in the floor.
The room hummed purposefully with the sound of thousands of cooling fans, one to a box. Davis felt, more than heard, the other vibrations that filled the room, generated by the pulse of the thousands of gallons of cooling water that every minute coursed through the collectors lining the walls of the room, absorbing the waste heat that the racks of computer servers threw off. No heat signature would give this facility away from above; once warm, the coolant was directed to the water intake of a nearby power plant, happy to take the pre-heated water from wherever it was that it came from, no questions asked.
Walking along the perimeter of the room, Davis could look down through the open metal grid of the floor at the first of many additional tiers of computer servers. But that always made him a little dizzy, so instead he looked out for the guard he was relieving. No surprise — there he was, heading Davis’s way, more than happy to call it a day. When they met, the guard stopped to slip on the coveralls he carried over one arm. Like the semi-automatic pistol the guard wore in a shoulder holster, they were identical to those that Davis also wore.
“What’s the weather like?”
“Sucks. Sleet and more of the same predicted till morning.”
“Figures. Tomorrow’s my day off.”
With that, the other man was on his way. In a few minutes he would drive off in the truck Davis had parked outside.
Well, the weather won’t be bothering me in here, Davis thought. The room was climate controlled to within a tenth of a degree of a chilly 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and well-insulated by the bomb-proof walls and roof installed above. It had taken two years for a fleet of delivery vans to carry all the dirt and rock away that had been excavated from beneath the warehouse. The same vans had returned with cement, steel, and, eventually, those thousands of servers, accompanied by technicians to set them up. The process had been tedious, yes, but not a single satellite picture had ever shown a trace of the ambitious construction project proceeding underground.
Of course, the effect worked in both directions. With no links to the outside world other than a voice line to his supervisor, the whole bloody world could come to an end and Davis would be none the wiser until after his shift was over.
Davis walked up a flight of steel stairs to the bullet proof, glass-walled security booth attached to the wall overlooking the room. His major challenge for the next twelve hours would be to stand watch in that booth without falling asleep. There’d be hell to pay if he did, because another guard, in another security room far away, would be watching him on a video screen.
The row of video displays in front of Davis allowed him to see every inch of the outside of the warehouse complex. Racked on the wall behind him were a high powered rifle and a shotgun, but it wasn’t likely he’d ever need to use them. One flip of the large red switch in front of Davis would flood the server room with enough Halon gas to not only put out a fire, but asphyxiate any intruder careless enough to leave a gas mask at home. Not for the first time, Davis wished that the house where he lived with his wife and their two small children could be as well protected.
But the government didn’t put as high a priority on protecting suburban starter homes as it did on safeguarding its most critical computer network facilities. Some storage facilities, like those serving the needs of the Pentagon and the National Security Administration, were located not far away at Fort Meade. Others, like this one, were scattered far and wide, hidden in plain sight but highly secure nonetheless. No way was anyone going to crack this nut. Davis was dead certain of that.
If Davis had been able to electronically monitor what was happening on server A-VI/147 on Level Three, though, his confidence might have taken a hit. True, concrete and steel walls, surveillance cameras and Halon gas were more than adequate to protect the physical well being of his facility against anything short of a direct hit by a “bunker busting” nuclear weapon. But the data on the facility’s servers had to rely on virtual defenses — firewalls, security routines and intrusion scanners.
And those defenses hadn’t been enough. Someone had gotten inside.
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“C’mon, Lily! Hurry up!”
Lily turned her head. The annoying distraction was coming from the person at the other end of her leash, someone with stockless feet jammed into worn, black loafers. Above bare ankles, a pair of pajama-clad legs disappeared into a rumpled raincoat. She saw there was an arm holding an umbrella, too, and under the umbrella, a stubbly, forty-something face topped by thinning black hair. Lily decided that the face did not look happy.
“Ah!” she thought. “That would be Frank.” Relieved that the distraction could be ignored, Lily returned to the important work at hand.
“C’mon, Lily!” the voice said again.
The fact that Frank’s face was unhappy was unremarkable. Even in pleasant weather, Frank tended to dwell pointlessly over the minor miseries of his life. Not long ago, those miseries had become much less minor when his mother Doreen entered a retirement home. After helping her move in, Frank took a deep breath and prepared to leave. No use dragging things out, he thought. Transitions are difficult and best dealt with quickly.
Still, it was sad. His mother was standing by the doorway of her new apartment, lower lip a-tremble and Lily held tightly in her arms. It was clear that she was rapidly nearing her emotional limits. Better hurry up.
“Well, Mom,” he said, “I guess I’ll be leaving now.”
Then it happened. With a lunge, Doreen thrust Lily into Frank’s arms. He stepped back with surprise into the hallway, too horrified to allow himself to grasp the obvious, while struggling to maintain his grip on the suddenly manic animal.
“The home doesn’t allow pets,” his mother blurted. “I could never have signed the lease if I hadn’t known that Lily would be safe with you. Now don’t you worry; I’ve made you her legal guardian, so it’s all set. Now go! Get out of here, before I change my mind.”
Frank desperately wanted her to change her mind. But his mother had already slammed the door in his astonished face. He stared blankly at it as the enormity of his plight sank in. Now what? Lily was just three years old, and acknowledged his existence only by barking. He heard his mother sobbing piteously on the other side of the door. He felt like crying, too.
That had been two long, loud months ago. Only recently had he progressed from the denial stage to active mourning.
“Come on!” Frank hissed. At last, Lily turned away from her tree. She looked up at him reproachfully, and barked.
“Okay, okay,” Frank said, fumbling in his pocket. He held a dog treat up for Lilly to see. “Okay?”
Satisfied that her efforts would not go un rewarded, Lily began looking for just the right place to do what finally needed to be done. At last, she squatted, looking blankly ahead. Frank sighed with relief.
A blue plastic bag inverted over his free hand, Frank scooped up Lily’s grudging gift. He handed over the treat, jerking back with his fingers barely intact.
“Isn’t that just the story of my life?” he thought bleakly as Lily happily consumed her treat. “Every day I give her a cookie, and every day she gives me a bag of shit.”
Trudging home through the rain, Frank reflected that his day generally went downhill from there.
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Lily shook herself mightily inside the foyer of Frank’s dingy apartment house, wetting what little of Frank was still dry. Satisfied, she planted her substantial hindquarters firmly on the floor, looked up at Frank, and barked. Frank sighed, picked up the still-wet dog, and labored his way up the stairs to his second floor flat.
As he climbed to the top, Frank’s rising eyes met a pair of fuzzy pink slippers, a floral house dress, and then a pair of folded arms draped with a bath towel. Just above them, he knew, would be the perpetually hostile face of his across-the-hall neighbor. As that scowling face hove into view, Frank once again noted the uncanny resemblance his neighbor bore to North Korean president Kim Jong-Il. Only with hair curlers.
“‘Morning, Mrs. Foomjoy,” Frank offered as Lily twisted wildly in his arms. He deposited the dog at her feet.
“Shame on you!” Mrs. Foomjoy barked as she knelt to massage Lily with the bath towel. “Poor, dear wet baby!” she crooned.
“It’s raining, Mrs. Foomjoy,” Frank observed. “Lily hasn’t learned how to use the indoor facilities yet.”
“Then why she not wear the lovely rain jacket I give her?” she snorted. “What is wrong with you? You don’t deserve dog like this!”
Frank couldn’t have agreed more. Lily groveled at Mrs. Foomjoy’s feet, and then leaned to one side until gravity obligingly rolled her onto her back. The dog gazed up with adoring, goggle eyes as Mrs. Foomjoy rubbed her stomach.
His neighbor grabbed the leash from Frank’s hand when she stood up. “I see to welfare of this dog!” she snapped, shutting her door loudly behind her. Frank stood suddenly alone in the poorly lit hallway, a warm, blue plastic pendulum swinging slowly from side to side in his hand. Relieved, he entered his own apartment and quietly shut the door.
Frank hung his dripping raincoat on a hook in the linoleum floored hallway inside. At one time, his apartment’s décor might have charitably been described as “Late-Twentieth-Century Divorced Middle-Aged Male.” Now the most obvious theme was random clutter. He poured a cup of coffee and sat at the small table in the small kitchen.
Before him the large screen of his laptop stared blankly back at him. With resignation, he turned the computer on.
Normally, the sound of a computer booting up would have struck him as cheerful; the imperceptibly soft whir of the cooling fan spinning up to speed; the blinking, blue light that assured him that the device was powering up; the screen phosphorescing into life with a pearl glow. After all, information technology – IT – was not only his profession, but the primary foundation of his existence. Email was Frank’s preferred link to the outside world, providing a social firewall between him and the random messiness of direct human contact.
Frank was convinced that digital relations were far safer than their in-person analogue. Electronic communications brought him as close to his fellow man as he usually wished to be. Any more intimate than that, and things were apt to become at best unpredictable, and at worst, well, he’d been there all too often before. You never got enough time to think before things started spiraling out of control.
Which brought him back to the night before. Be honest, he mused ruefully. You got what you deserved. Or didn’t get what you didn’t deserve, to be more precise.
He stared at the keyboard. Should he check his email or shouldn’t he? The rational side of his brain said, yes, what’s there is there. Deal with it.
But the other side of his brain had a different opinion: “Go back to bed,” it whispered urgently, “It’s Sunday. You don’t have to deal with anything today.”
That was true. And who knows what might happen by Monday? There could be a typhoon tonight. Or maybe giant pterodactyls would erupt from a wormhole next to the Lincoln Memorial, scattering screaming tourists towards the safety of nearby Metro stations. That side of his brain was lobbying strongly to take two aspirin, pull the covers back over his head, and let reality take care of itself for another twenty-four hours.
He sighed and made up his mind. Might as well see sooner rather than later what people from his office had posted on line about the night before. A few clicks later and he was at the Facebook page of Mary, the sullen receptionist. Yes, there were pictures from the party. Lots of them. Later would do just fine after all, he decided. He snapped the laptop shut without turning it off.
The sad thing was, for once he had actually been looking forward to the Library of Congress IT Department Holiday party, even bringing his daughter Marla with him, a Georgetown University grad student.
He appreciated the great impression she always made on his co-workers. Unlike her dad, Marla was self-assured and sociable. She worked the crowd like a pro, chatting and shaking hands, poised and laughing. How could he feel anything but proud? It was hard not to drink a bit more than usual as he watched her from the security of the bar in the rear of the function room.
More to the point, Frank had been looking forward to making Marla feel proud of her old man as well. Everyone knew that George Marchand, the Director of IT at the LoC, was going to announce his choice to head an important security initiative mandated by the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology. Frank figured he had the spot all sewn up. After all, he was – or at least at one time had been – a recognized cybersecurity innovator; a McArthur Foundation “Genius” Award recipient, no less, in recognition of his widely acclaimed creative work in the early days of computer networking.
So when George stood up and tapped on his glass, Frank sat up straighter. He listened impatiently as his boss welcomed the spouses, thanked the staff for their work that year, and told a joke at his own expense. At last, he began to make the announcement that Frank was waiting for.
And then it happened. One moment Frank was looking sideways to see the reaction on his daughter’s face when his name was called, and he next he was hearing someone else’s name ring out instead. And not just any name, but Rick Wellesley’s – “only out for himself” Rick, a self-satisfied slug of a middle-manager who had never had a creative thought in his life. Someone who had even briefly reported to Frank when he first came to work at the LoC. Rick Wellesley? How could this be happening?
But it was. There was Rick, standing and basking in the applause, glancing briefly and triumphantly in Frank’s direction. Frank was stunned, his face burning. And then he was angry. Without a word to his daughter, he stood up and marched to the bar, turning his back on the party as George finished his remarks. Knocking back another drink, Frank now felt foolish as well as angry. Everyone was probably looking at him, but he was afraid to turn around and find out. He sulked at the bar until Marla came looking for him.
Sitting now in his kitchen, Frank felt his face grow flush again. After all, everyone had expected the job to go to him. Then, with a wrenching feeling, he had a worse thought – what if no one had expected him to get the job? Maybe he was the only one in the whole damn department who hadn’t seen it coming. Maybe everyone had been laughing up their sleeves as they watched him bask in his expected glory, just waiting for his jaw to drop when he realized that he had been skunked by Rick.
Of course that had been the case, he thought wretchedly. He was sure of it.
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And why not? What had he really done in the last twenty years? Sure, he’d become a star at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – “MIT” to anyone in the know. He’d enrolled at the age of sixteen after skipping two years of middle school. Not that skipping a few grades was unusual at MIT. As an undergraduate, he’d become part of Project Athena, an ambitious effort to create a distributed computing system for the whole university. Of course, the goal for the project’s corporate sponsors was to use MIT as a testbed. Later, they hoped to productize the design and make a ton of money.
For some reason, Frank had intuitively locked onto the security challenges that such a system would present. He already had privileges to use MIT’s gateway to the government-funded Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – the now-famous “ARPANET” that was the precursor to the Internet. Only select institutions had access to it then, but Frank immediately grasped where Project Athena and the ARPANET together could eventually lead. It hit him between the eyes that this was the start of something big. Linking terminals together around a campus was today’s goal, but the next step would be to connect those networks together, using ARPANET technology.
That sounded awesome, but how would you restrict access to any particular data to one person, and not let it be seen by everyone else? MIT was already a hotbed of hackers. If students were going to great lengths now to break into restricted sections of university computers just for fun, what would criminals, or enemy countries, not do to break into classified computers, once someone had linked them all together?
Frank tackled that issue with gusto, if not discipline. He was a big picture guy, and what a big and exciting picture it was! The idea of wide area networks was brand new, and big ideas were needed to make sense of it all; the details could come later. When Frank graduated, he stayed on at MIT, nominally in a PhD program, but for all practical purposes he lived at a terminal in the Project Athena lab, surviving on coffee and code like so many other young computer engineering students back in the day.
Luckily for Frank, he found a mentor – an engineer on loan from one of the sponsoring companies. Surprisingly, the two hit it off, and the older man reined in the younger one enough to keep Frank’s ideas from flying off into too many directions at once. He also insisted that Frank get his best ideas recorded in some sort of coherent order. Often they talked until all hours, the older man channeling Frank’s enthusiasm and helping him follow his insights down the most productive paths.
Frank never completed his doctorate, but he did finish his Masters thesis – and by anyone’s account, it was brilliant. He anticipated just about every security challenge that would arise over the next twenty years as the Internet took off. He also suggested most of the solutions that were later refined and implemented to deal with a massively networked world. Even today, his thesis remained an obligatory foundational reference in just about every new network and Internet security paper that was written.
Frank’s thesis also brought him to the notice of the mysterious keepers of the MacArthur Fellows Program – the unknown judges that every year contact a select group of exceptional individuals they have decided, “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”
Receiving a MacArthur Fellowship had been the high point of Frank’s professional career. But as a practical matter, it also brought an end to it, because the payments of $25,000 every three months for five years gave Frank the freedom to do whatever he wanted to without ever having to acquire the discipline of making his way in the world. It also allowed him to get married.
It was not helpful that what Frank wanted to do usually changed every other week. It wasn’t long before his work at Project Athena suffered. He no longer listened to his mentor, and his assigned tasks no longer got done. Instead, he plunged from one question that intrigued him to another, never getting very far along with any of them.
Like many people whose intellectual abilities matured before their social skills, Frank developed an abrupt and assertive manner that helped mask his discomfort around others. That was unfortunate, because his new–found fame encouraged him to become even more obnoxious than ever. Soon, the other guys in the lab were annoyed with his failure to meet his commitments, and also sick of hearing his latest revelations about security – or about any other topic on which he had decided he was now an expert.
Eventually, it was his mentor who took Frank aside and told him that if he didn’t shape up, his days in the lab were numbered. Frank didn’t take that well. What right did some middle aged, middle-management type with a degree from a state school in the Midwest have to tell a certified Genius anything about anything?
Quite a lot, Frank now reflected, gazing at his closed laptop. Like the immature idiot he was then, he had cleared his things out of the Project Athena lab the same day his mentor had called him out and never returned. Eventually, the MacArthur Fellowship money ran out, and with a wife and young daughter, Frank had to get more serious about working. Or at least he should have. For a while, his thesis and MacArthur reputation carried him from job to job. But when the bottom fell out of the economy, employers received a flood of great résumés for every job they posted.
By then, of course, Frank’s résumé was also getting pretty long in the tooth. Frank had no “continued and enhanced creative work” to show for his five years of subsidized, random behavior. He’d never published another paper, and it was others, and not Frank, who turned his thesis ideas into real protocols and products. As the jobs got scarce, reference checks counted a whole lot more, and the feedback about Frank always came back the same: brilliant, arrogant, unfocused, unreliable.
That was more charitable than what his soon-to-be ex-wife had to say. But he hadn’t listened to her, either. Frank usually tried not to think much about the years that followed: the start-up that had signed him up as Chief Technical Officer and the VCs that fired him; the time spent without a job at all; the rut he fell into for years after his wife moved out with their daughter, when he said the hell with everything and everybody. That time was a blur of punching the clock in whatever high school, small business or municipal IT department would take him on until he got fired again, then waiting until his unemployment ran out before finding something else he could do in his sleep, until even that became too much to bother with.
Through all that time, though, industry insiders still sought Frank out, so he maintained a low-key consulting business on the side to make sure he could always cover his child support payments. Among the elite in the world of security, Frank still had the reputation of a wizard, able to come up with the kind of insights that would make the most impenetrable problems suddenly transparent. An emailed plea for help describing something dense and dark that had already defied all of the usual solutions would reliably generate a response from Frank an hour or two later, usually beginning, “It strikes me that…” and ending with, “I suggest you try….” Invariably, what Frank suggested worked. But requests for his ongoing assistance went unanswered.
It was his daughter Marla that finally set Frank back on his feet. One Friday when he was once again out of work, he picked her up for their weekend together. But something was wrong; his normally chatty preteen wasn’t saying a word. As they walked, she looked down at her feet. Then she looked up as if to ask him a question, only to look down again. After a while, Frank got irritated. “Marla, if there’s something you want to ask me, just ask it already!”
But Marla still paused. Finally she said, “Dad, you know I’m in a computer class now, don’t you? It’s something you have to take in seventh grade.”
“Yes,” he said, surprised. “So?”
“Well,” she said, and stopped. He waited, now curious.
“Well,” she started again, “Today we went on a field trip to the computer department of a big company, and we all had to sign in and wear these name tag things. One of the people that worked there gave us a tour, and when she saw my name, she asked if I had a father named Frank, so of course I said yes.”
“Uh huh,” said Frank, not liking where this was going.
“Well…” Marla paused again, and then the words came rushing out.
“She said that she went to school with you and you were the most brilliant person she had ever known and that you’d gotten a big award for being a genius and she wanted to know what you were doing now.” Marla stopped abruptly for a long moment. “And I didn’t know what to say.”
Frank wished this could be all over, and quickly. But, Marla, of course, needed an answer.
“Dad, the guide said you used to be somebody really important.”
Frank felt like he was dangling at the end of a rope, turning slowly in the breeze. He looked away, and tried to think what to say. What could he say? And then, with all of the disarming innocence of a child, Marla finished for him.
“Dad, she wasn’t telling the truth, was she?”
Frank couldn’t breathe. His daughter thought so little of him that she had to believe that the guide was thinking of someone else? Or was it that she would be too ashamed of what he had become to be able to deal with the truth? He felt sick.
By then, they were standing in front of the door of his cheap apartment building. The traffic rushed past the garbage cans and trash piled up on the curb, and Frank took it all in. The sights, the smells, his life – they all fit together perfectly, didn’t they? Still, he couldn’t think of a word to say.
Finally, Marla put her hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Dad,” she said softly. “Let’s go upstairs.”
That had been ten years ago. The following Monday he sucked it up and called his old mentor, George Marchand, and asked for a job. George was the head of the IT department at the Library of Congress now, and Frank called him out of the blue to ask if they could get together for coffee.
George had been as gracious as Frank had been uncomfortable. Frank had sent his résumé along by email, for what it was worth, and George cut straight to the chase after the opening pleasantries.
“You know I’ll need to bring you in at the bottom, Frank. Can you deal with that?”
Frank was prepared. “Sure, sure, George. I’ll be fine with that.”
George nodded, brows furrowed. Then he changed the topic. “How’s that cute goddaughter of mine these days? I can’t even remember the last time I saw Marla.”
“She’s great,” said Frank, suddenly determined; it helped to remember why he was sitting there. “Just great. We get together every weekend. She’s in seventh grade now. She’s smart as a whip and gets straight As.”
They chatted about family for a few more minutes, and then George looked at his watch. They both stood up, and shook hands.
“I won’t let you down,” Frank said as he looked George in the eye for the first time.
“I know you won’t,” his new boss said. But Frank could tell he was only being polite.
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Sitting in his kitchen, Frank reflected that he’d been as good as his word. But not much better, he made himself admit. Yes, he’d rarely missed a day of work, and no one could say he hadn’t earned his paycheck.
And yes, he’d earned every promotion he’d been given. But the promotions had been few, and the last one had been awarded seven years ago. Frank still had tremendous insights into IT architecture, and he remained as interested as ever in new developments in security. His cubicle at the LoC was stacked high with articles covered in scribbled notes, and he read voraciously online as well. For anyone in the office with a thorny problem, Frank was the go-to guy who could always solve it, provided he was allowed to tackle it alone. Sitting at a keyboard, Frank was still The Man – the tougher the problem the better, just bring it on. Three hours, eight hours or twenty hours later, he’d still be turning it over in his mind until suddenly an elegant and creative solution would spring to mind.
Management level work, though, was something else again. Every time George gave him a shot at a long term project with a couple of others to supervise, Frank could never pull it all together. Half the time, he’d be up in the clouds thinking big thoughts that went beyond the task at hand, and the rest of the time he’d be down in the weeds, diving down rat holes to solve problems that could easily be ignored. The folks he was supposed to be supervising never knew what they would be doing from one day to the next, or what, if anything, Frank did with the work they submitted. Inevitably, George would have to take the project back. It didn’t take long before the big projects stopped coming, and Frank settled into the solitary niche where he had stayed ever since.
He wasn’t done beating himself up, though. Admit it, he demanded, you were relieved when the projects stopped coming. You’ve been marking time for years now, and that’s all you’ll ever do. What right did you have to think George would throw this project your way?
But this had been a security project, damn it. That (and the drinks he’d had last night) were what had led him to corner George later on in the cloakroom.
“I’m sorry, Frank,” George had said, wrapping his scarf around his neck. “I thought about letting you know ahead of time, and then I didn’t. I guess I should have.”
“That’s not the point, George! Rick can’t find his own ass with both hands in a well-lit room. What were you thinking?”
George buttoned his overcoat, and reached for his hat. “Of course Rick can’t hold a candle to you when it comes to security, Frank. There’s nobody I’ve ever worked with who has the insight and ideas that you do. And everybody knows nobody covers his butt like Rick.”
Frank let his breath out with a rush of exasperation as George settled his hat on his head. “So then why did you pick him?”
George squared off to Frank as he pulled on his gloves, looking him straight in the eye.
“Frank, you may know security, but when it comes to understanding people and how to manage them, you haven’t got a clue. Yes, Rick is one hell of a weasel. But you can always rely on a weasel to watch out for himself. That means that if you give him a job to do and tell him his job is on the line, well, by hook or by crook, he’ll get it done. And I can’t say that about you.”
Well, what could Frank say to that? He’d asked George for an explanation and now he’d have to listen to it.
“How many chances have I given you over the years, Frank? I can’t remember, can you?” Frank looked away.
“You’re twice as smart as I am,” George continued. “You should have had my job by now! But that’s never going to happen unless you grow up and learn how to perform. If you thought I’d stick my neck out for you with Chairman Steele grandstanding in the House, looking for the next poor bastard to eviscerate in front of the cameras during a public committee meeting, well, you’re just delusional. Good night, Frank.”
There hadn’t been anything Frank could say to that, of course, so he was relieved when George turned and walked away. Furious at himself, Rick and George, in that order, he stalked back to the bar.
Frank decided that was as much of the night before as he was up to reliving; he’d leave the scene with Rick for his next exercise in psychological self-flagellation. It had all escalated so stereotypically anyway; Rick’s approach and his smarmy condescension, Frank’s insult in response. Okay, enough.
He felt the anger well up again, and with it, a sudden sense of purpose. Screw the jerk; just because Rick got the project didn’t mean that Frank couldn’t still show him up. After all, Frank had been so sure he had the spot in the bag that he’d already started writing up a proposal with his plan of attack outlined. No way was Rick going to be able to pull this job off; George would realize that soon enough, and then there’d be no one to turn to but Frank.
He snapped open his laptop and punched the keys with fury, rushing through the complicated log-in sequence that would take him into the heart of the LoC’s system, where his proposal was archived. Highlighting the file name, he hit the entry key, leaned back, and waited for the proposal to display.
Except it didn’t. Frank leaned forward and poked the Enter key again. Still nothing. Perhaps his laptop was frozen. But no – he could still move his cursor.
Then Frank noticed that something on the screen was changing: the background color was warming up, turning reddish, orange and yellow, as if the sun was rising behind it. Now that was different! Frank watched with growing astonishment as the colors began to shimmer, and then coalesced into shapes that might be flames. Yes, flames indeed – but not like a holiday screen-saver image of a log fire – this was a real barn-burner of a conflagration!
Frank wondered what kind of weird virus he’d picked up, and how. After all, he was an IT security specialist, and if any laptop was protected six ways to Sunday, it was his. So much for whatever he had planned for today; he’d have to wipe his disk and rebuild his system from the ground up.
He was about to shut the laptop down when he saw that the flames were dying away. Now what? An image seemed to be emerging from behind the flames as they subsided. Frank leaned forward; the image became a tall building – maybe some sort of lighthouse? Underneath, there was a line of text, but in characters he couldn’t read. Truly, this was like no virus he’d ever seen or even heard of before. He reached for his cell phone and took a picture of the screen just before it suddenly went blank.
Frank was impressed. Whoever had come up with this hack certainly had a sense of style. A weird one, but hey, graphic art of any type wasn’t the long suit of most hackers.
Frank got a pad of paper and a pen from his desk and punched up the file directory again, highlighted his proposal, and pressed the Enter key again. This time, he would watch more closely and take notes.
But all that displayed was a three word message: “File not found.” Frank tried again – no luck. He did a search of the entire directory using the title. Nothing. His proposal was gone.
Now he was alarmed. After all, the directory he was staring at was in he innermost sanctum of the Library of Congress computer system, and the LoC was the greatest library in the world. Within its vast holdings were books that could be found almost nowhere else on earth. Recently, the Library had begun digitizing materials, and then destroying the physical copies. If someone had been able to delete files in the most protected part of the Library’s computer system, what else might be missing?
Frank raced through a random sampling of sensitive directories, and hen let out a sigh of relief; it was hard to tell for sure, but everything seemed intact. He checked the server logs for the Library’s indices, holdings and various other resources; everything appeared to be undisturbed, with no unusual reductions in the amount of data stored.
Frank drummed his fingers on the table in the cramped dinette. How to go about figuring this one out? Then he remembered his cell phone, and sent the picture of the screenshot to his laptop. The picture wasn’t great, but once he enlarged it he could tell that the characters were Greek. He cropped the image until just the text remained, and then ran it through a multi-script OCR program to turn the picture of the Greek characters into text. Finally, he pasted the text into a translator window. No luck – all he got was a “cannot translate” message.
Frank’s fingers started drumming again. He reopened the drop down menu of languages in the translator screen and noticed that another language option was “Ancient Greek.” He highlighted that choice and hit Enter. This time, the screen blinked.
Frank looked, and then he blinked, too. But the translation still read the same:
THANK YOU FOR YOUR
TO THE ALEXANDRIA PROJECT
- 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 - 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 -
About the Book
Andy Updegrove's The Alexandria Project draws on his extensive experience representing both companies and consortia that are in the thick of cybersecurity defensive efforts. In the words of In-Q-Tel Chief Information Security Officer Dan Geer, "The Alexandria Project is fiction that cuts close to the bone. But where George Orwell envisioned 1984 from the safety of thirty-five years out, the future that Updegrove describes may already be upon us." Or as Andy says, "The only thing that's fictional about the plot is that it hasn't happened yet." You can buy The Alexandria Project as an eBook ($2.99) or in print versions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and wherever else books are sold.
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We at Linux Journal would love to hear what you think about us posting an occassional (or perhaps even regular) science fiction or cyber-thriller column. Ideas could include us sourcing content from you, our readers, many of whom are budding novelists. Or, we could bring in a single science fiction author to write a regular series. We don't want to get too far away from what we do best: deep, thoughtful, un-biased technical reporting, but a little break from it here and there never hurt anyone. :) Please submit your feedback in the comment section below. We'd love to hear from you!
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In modern computer systems, privacy and security are mandatory. However, connections from the outside over public networks automatically imply risks. One easily available solution to avoid eavesdroppers’ attempts is SSH. But, its wide adoption during the past 21 years has made it a target for attackers, so hardening your system properly is a must.
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