Chapter 35:// Cruel Calculus

Dow Sinks 820 Points on Renewed Cyber Attacks — Network intrusions destroyed data at two publicly traded multinational corporations Wednesday-bringing the total to six cyber attacks in as many days and sending financial markets into free fall. The stocks of Vederos Financial (NYS- VIDO) and Ambrogy Int’l (NASDAQ — AMRG) fell to pennies a share before trading was halted. Federal authorities and international police agencies claim cyber terrorists infiltrated company systems, destroying data and backup tapes. In a worrisome development in the War on Terror, unnamed sources indicated that Islamic terrorists were likely to blame-possibly students educated in Western universities…

Ops Center 1 was the National Security Agency’s mission control room. Dozens of plasma screens lined its walls, displaying real-time data from around the world in vibrant colors and vector graphics. There were color-coded diagrams of telecom, satellite, and Internet traffic. Other screens displayed current satellite coverage zones and still others showed the status of seabed acoustic sensors, missile launch monitors, the location of radar, radio, seismic, and microwave listening posts. The moderately sized room had a central control board, but individual workstations were arrayed around it in aisles. Each was manned by a specialist case officer: Latin America, the Middle East, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the Drug Interdiction Task Force, and on and on.

Uniformed military personnel dominated the space. They were relatively young people for the most part, not the seasoned analysts who developed strategy but the younger officers who worked in the world of operations, monitoring the data feeds. They were the nerve endings of the United States.

They were especially keyed up as they watched the large central screen and its digital world map. Hundreds of red dots on that map were scattered throughout North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in this business, red dots meant trouble.

Dr. Natalie Philips stood behind the central control board operator. A three-star general and the NSA’s deputy director, Chris Fulbright, stood alongside her. Fulbright had the earnest, soft-spoken manner of a high school guidance counselor, but his mild demeanor masked a steely-eyed pragmatism. Philips knew that mild-mannered people did not rise to Mahogany Row.

She gestured to the digital map filling the screen. “Approximately thirty-eight hundred corporate networks in sixteen countries have been hijacked by an unknown entity-and these are just the ones we know about. We have good reason to believe the entity is Sobol’s Daemon.”

The general stared at the screen. “Sergeant, notify the Joint Chiefs; inform them that we are under attack.”

The board operator looked up. “Already taken care of, sir.”

The general looked to Philips again. “Where are the attacks coming from?”

Philips stared at the world map. “You mean where did they come from, General. The battle is long over.”

“What the hell is she talking about?”

Deputy Director Fulbright interceded. “She means these networks were compromised some time ago. We’re only learning about it just now.”

The general’s nostrils flared. He looked darkly at Philips. “How is it possible no one noticed these networks go down?”

“Because they didn’t go down. They’re still operating normally.”

The general looked confused.

Philips explained. “Someone took them over, and they’re running them as if they own them.”

The general gestured to the screens. “Why wasn’t this detected? Our systems should have sounded the alarm the moment anomalous IP traffic patterns occurred. Isn’t that what the neural logic farm is for?”

Philips was calm. “It wasn’t detected, General, because there were no anomalous traffic patterns to detect. The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn’t hack systems. It hacks society.”

The general looked again to Fulbright.

Fulbright obliged. “Dr. Philips discovered the back door in Sobol’s video games some months ago. One that allowed users to enter secret maps and be exposed to the Daemon’s recruitment efforts.”

The general nodded impatiently. “So the Daemon recruited people to compromise these corporate networks on its behalf?”

“Yes. We believe it coordinated the activities of thousands of people who had no individual knowledge of each other.”

“The Daemon Task Force was supposed to detect and infiltrate these terror cells.”

Philips regarded the general with deliberate patience. “Our monitoring resulted in several dozen arrests, but the Daemon network is massively parallel-no one person or event is critical to its survival. It has no ringleaders and no central point of failure. And no central repository of logic. None of the Daemon’s agents knows anything more than a few seconds in advance, so informants have been useless. It also seems highly adept at detecting monitoring.”

“Forget arrests. What about infiltration?”

“We’ve been working with the interagency Task Force, but progress has been slow. My people are not undercover operatives-they know far too many national secrets to be put at risk of capture-and the operatives who’ve been brought forward from Langley and Quantico are not expert enough in the lingo and culture of computer gaming-or cryptography and IP network architecture for that matter. A third of them are evangelicals with little or no experience in online gaming. Developing their skills will take time. We’re painfully short of suitable recruits.”

The general pounded his hand on a chair back in frustration. “Goddamnit, this thing is running circles around us.” He looked to Philips again. “How does recruiting kids through video games translate into taking over corporate networks?”

Philips was looking at the big screen. “Because it didn’t recruit kids. Have a look at the demographics of video game sales. The biggest market segment is young men aged eighteen to twenty-eight.”

Fulbright nodded. “IT workers.”

“Maybe.” She turned to them both. “It could be any mid-to low-level employee. Not necessarily an IT staffer. Their efforts would be augmented by a massively parallel cyber organism that coordinates the efforts of thousands of other people-and it can pay.”

The general tried to wrap his head around it. “But why would employees want to destroy their own company? It doesn’t make sense.”

“There are always disgruntled or greedy people. The Daemon most likely deals them in.”

The general had murder in his eyes. “These terrorists need to be found and shot.”

“Careful. The Daemon has already destroyed two dozen companies that disobeyed its instructions. Among the currently infected are several multibillion-dollar corporations, representing a cross section of strategic industries-energy, finance, high-tech, biotech, media, manufacturing, food, transportation. The targets were obviously selected to maximize economic and social disruption in the event of their collapse.”

The general was starting to see the big picture. “This is no different from a strategic bombing campaign. This Daemon could gut the global economy. What are our options?”

She sighed. “Before we knew the extent of the infection, we attempted to penetrate a couple of compromised networks. But our intrusion attempts were detected and the target networks-and thus, the companies themselves-were destroyed by the Daemon in retribution.

“Wiretaps and surveillance of individual employees by the FBI resulted in similar retribution. Apparently, the Daemon does not hesitate to destroy the companies it has taken hostage. Further infiltration attempts have been put on hold until new strategies can be developed.”

“Doctor, I repeat: what are our options?”

Philips paused. “Right now we have only one: inform the public. Tell them what’s happening.”

“That’s crazy talk. The stock market would crash.”

Fulbright pointed them to a side conference room and spoke softly. “Please, let’s continue this discussion behind closed doors. Everyone here may be cleared top-secret, but they all have retirement funds.”

They entered a small conference room, and the deputy director closed the door behind them.

The general glared at Philips. “Doctor, what would informing the public accomplish other than to destroy the 401(k)s of millions of taxpayers?”

“Right now Sobol has you exactly where he wants you. His Daemon can prey upon millions of unsuspecting people because we haven’t warned anyone. At some point the Daemon is going to show itself-and we’ll lose all credibility with the public. Look, announce its existence before you’re forced to, and we’ll have billions of allies to help us destroy it.”

Fulbright shook his head. “It’s not that simple, Doctor. A news headline announcing that the Daemon exists might trigger a Daemon event-possibly the deletion of all data in these compromised networks. It could cause financial Armageddon. It could cripple the world economy and lead to widespread conflict-even thermonuclear war. We can’t risk that possibility.”

Philips didn’t blink. “That’s an extreme conclusion.”

“Extreme conclusions are what I’m paid to come to.”

“Do you ever plan on telling the public?”

“We’ll inform them after we’ve developed a countermeasure.”

“But that might be never.”

He didn’t say anything.


“Yes, Doctor?”

“If you don’t intend to announce the existence of the Daemon, then I hope you’re planning to intervene on behalf of Peter Sebeck.”

The general looked to her. “The cop on death row?”

“His appeals are moving through the federal courts unusually fast. He’s scheduled to die by lethal injection.”

Fulbright didn’t respond immediately. “I’ll take that under advisement, Doctor.”

“You could fake his execution-“

“This might seem harsh, but Peter Sebeck must suffer the full penalty demanded by law-and the sooner the better. Faking his execution would risk tipping our hand to the Daemon.”

“Sir, please-“

“Philips, you yourself said that the Daemon has operatives in thousands of organizations. It could also have operatives in the penal system or law enforcement. So we must take the safe course. Sebeck is a casualty of this war, Doctor. You must put him out of your mind and concentrate on saving the lives and property of millions more Americans.”

Philips stared at him for a moment. “But surely we-“

“There is no ‘but,’ Doctor. Please focus on your work.”

She was about to speak again when the general leaned in.

“Any word from Jon Ross?”

Philips was still distracted but collected herself. “Not recently.”

The general nodded. ” There’s a hacker we need in custody ASAP. All these hackers should be rounded up and shot.”

She eyed the general. ” I’m a hacker, General, and if it weren’t for people like Jon Ross, we’d be in far worse shape than we are now.”

Fulbright kept his eyes on her. “Find him. We need him on the Joint Task Force. Tell him we’ll offer amnesty and U.S. citizenship, if you think it will matter. Just get him here. In the meantime, I need you and your people focused and working to find a way to stop this thing. Is that clear?”

She did not respond with enthusiasm. “Yes, sir.”

Fulbright didn’t relent. “Are we clear on this?”

“Sir, I-»

“You are a perceptive woman, Natalie. You, of all people, should be able to do the math on this. If we risk the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people to save the life of a single man, we’ll be guilty of a heinous crime. Do you see the truth of this?”

She nodded after a moment.

“Now perhaps you can gain some appreciation for the cruel calculus I’m forced to use every day.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Your heart is in the right place. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep a sense of perspective. Ask yourself how many children you’d be willing to sacrifice so that Detective Sebeck can live.”

Philips realized he was right.

The general cleared his throat. “I need to report back to the Pentagon.”

Philips turned to the deputy director. He nodded. She called after the general. “There’s more, sir.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“I detected something unusual emanating from the networks of Daemon-infected companies. It’s a pulse-an IP beacon of sorts. The tech industry calls these ‘heartbeats.’ This one consists of a lengthy burst of packets issuing from TCP port 135 at a predictable interval and bit length. Once we noticed the beacon was present at infected companies, we started looking for it elsewhere on the Internet. We found it echoing all over. That’s how we estimate that thirty-eight hundred corporations have been compromised. Some of those companies might not even know they’re infected yet.”

The general was nonplussed. “What’s the purpose of this ‘IP beacon’?”

“That was the question. We first thought it might be a signal to indicate a company was a Daemon host. But then the signal wouldn’t need to be so long-and each burst is a pretty long stream of data. It’s always identical for a single company, but never the same between two different companies. And all companies project it in a sequence-like a chain. A pulse from Company A is sent to Company B, then from Company B to Company C, and so on until we start back at Company A again. Stranger still, when our infiltration attempt caused one company to be destroyed, another beacon appeared at a new company to take its place, and it exactly matched the beacon that was lost.”

She paused. “That’s when I first suspected this was a multipart message.”

“The companies are communicating with each other?”

“No. They’re communicating to us.

The general weighed what that meant. He regarded Philips with something akin to dread. “What are they saying?”

“The message was encoded with a 128-bit block cipher. It took us weeks to decrypt-and that was on Cold Iron.The good news is that, besides the Japanese and maybe the Chinese, it will take other nations years to decrypt, so we’re convinced that Sobol intended it for us. When we assembled the constituent pieces from all the beacons at all the companies, we discovered a single, very large GNU compressed file. When we extracted the package contents, we found two things: an API and an MPEG video file.”

“What’s an API?”

“It’s an application programming interface-rules for controlling a process. It’s basically a guide for communicating with-and possibly controlling-the Daemon.”

“Good lord! Why would Sobol give us that?”

“I think it’s a trap, sir.”

“What sort of control is it saying it will give us?”

“We’ve only begun our analysis, but the most significant function we’ve discovered is in the Daemon’s Ragnorok class library. It’s a function named Destroy. It accepts a country code and a tax ID as arguments. We believe that invoking it destroys all the data in the target company.”

The general thought about this. “My God…why would he give that to us?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“You said there was a video. What did the video contain?”

Philips took a deep breath. “Something you need to carry up the chain of command.”

* * *

In the boardroom of building OPS-2B, the group of agency directors sat arrayed around a broad mahogany conference table. The tension was thick as ominous looks passed from one director to the next. Their host opened the emergency meeting.

NSA: “Gentlemen, you are all aware of the gravity of the current situation. I’ve brought in representatives from both Computer Systems Corporation and its subsidiary, EndoCorp, to provide additional technical expertise in this matter. These are the same folks who built the FBI’s new case management system. They are cleared UMBRA, so we may speak freely. Some of you have already worked together at NBP-1.”

Both representatives gave dour nods. They were in their forties and looked more conservative than the window mannequins in the FBI gift shop.

NSA: “What you’re about to see is a matter of the utmost secrecy. Were this information to be made public, there is every likelihood that the world economy would falter.” He let it sink in. “A-Group has decrypted a video message from Matthew Sobol.”

An animated buzz spread through the room. He waited until it died down.

NSA: “We’re going to screen that video. Watch it carefully, and we’ll discuss it afterward. Lights, please.”

The lights dimmed, and a plasma screen set into the wall glowed to life. In a moment Matthew Sobol appeared in high-definition color. The image was so clear it seemed as if a window had opened in the side of the somber boardroom. Sobol stood outdoors, in the sun on high ground overlooking the ocean. He was dressed in khakis and a pressed linen shirt. He looked normal, healthy, the breeze tossing his hair.

Sobol betrayed no emotion. He stared into the camera for several moments before speaking. “They built a twenty-trillion-dollar house of cards. Then they told you to guard it. And they call me insane.”

Sobol started to walk along the cliff’s edge. The camera followed him, Steadicam-like, in medium close-up. “Technology. It is the physical manifestation of the human will. It began with simple tools. Then came the wheel, and on it goes to this very day. Civilizations rise and fall based on technological innovation. Bronze falls to iron. Iron falls to steel. Steel falls to gunpowder. Gunpowder falls to circuitry.” Sobol looked toward the camera again. “For those among you who don’t understand what’s happening, let me explain: the Great Diffusion has begun-an era when the nation state dissolves. Technology will cause this. As countries compete for markets in the global economy, diffusion of high technology will accelerate. It will result in a diffusion of power. And diffusion of power will make countries an ineffective organizing principle. At first, marginal governments will fail. Larger states will not be equipped to intercede effectively. These lawless regions will become breeding grounds for international crime and terrorism. Threats to centralized authority will multiply. Centralized power will be defenseless against these distributed threats. You have already experienced the leading edge of this wave.”

Sobol stopped walking and gazed longingly out at the ocean. In a moment he turned to the camera again.

“My Daemon is not your enemy. And thankfully it cannot be stopped. By anyone or anything. It is neither good nor evil. It is like fire, and it will burn those who do not learn to use it. It will burn the enemies of reason. It will burn the hypocrites and the fools. Use the tools I’ve given you, and the Daemon will become a valuable resource. Or, if you prefer, don’t. Remember that the Daemon is now firmly established throughout the world. Other cultures will use these tools, even if you do not.”

He stared straight into the camera. “There will be violence soon. It will shock you with its scope and ferocity. Don’t waste your time interceding. It isn’t directed at you. It is directed at other parasites in the network.

“Distributed daemons are a foregone conclusion in the coming world. You should befriend this one. Because the next daemon might not be so friendly. And, unlike your current leaders, my Daemon can protect you from your enemies.”

The video ended, and the lights came up.

Everyone looked suddenly haggard.

CIA: “Jumping Jesus…”

NSA: “Gentlemen, you’ve seen the devil himself, and now we need to figure out what to do about him.”

CIA: “Forget him. What can we do to stop his Daemon?”

DARPA: “We need to destroy the Daemon’s darknet, that’s what we need to do. This message is just propaganda. Another misdirection.”

CSC: “Destroying the Daemon will require a coordinated cyber attack on numerous corporate data systems. An attack unprecedented in scale-a digital D-Day.”

DARPA: “Too risky. One misstep, and the Daemon destroys thousands of companies.”

EndoCorp: “We can’t just let this thing take over. Whatever the cost.”

FBI: “What does Sobol mean when he says there’ll be violence? Is he talking revolution?”

DARPA: “He’s a megalomaniac.”

DIA: “If he means revolution, we should have troops in the streets. Sobol could be planning a coup.”

NSA: “The markets are already shaky. Mobilizing troops and declaring martial law will cause a panic.”

CSC: “We have private security forces available.”

CIA: “He said we weren’t the target.”

FBI: “You’re not going to take him at his word, are you?”

DIA: “He did say nation states were doomed.”

CIA: “Yes, but he didn’t say he would be the instrument of their destruction. He could be warning us.”

FBI: “You’re starting to worry me.”

CIA: “I don’t mean that Sobol is on our side. I think he’s an evil bastard-I mean was an evil bastard-but he had a demented vision that I think we should try to wrap our heads around. He talked about small groups-‘The Great Diffusion’ is how he termed it. That small groups would be battling nation states.”

DARPA: “Sobol mentioned lawless regions and failed states. What if he was talking about terrorism?”

DIA: “Terrorists use our own technology against us.”

CIA: “And so do international crime rings. Does Sobol think his Daemon could be used against terrorism and transnational crime?”

DARPA: “It took over the online porn and gambling industries easily enough.”

NSA: “We’ve got to get a handle on this.”

EndoCorp: “Gentlemen, this Daemon is comprised of distributed networked systems with a companion human network. This is no different from many enemies we’ve already defeated.”

DARPA: “I think it’s clearly different.”

EndoCorp: “In specifics, maybe, but not in the abstract. Whether he’s dead or alive, Sobol’s network can be disrupted and his people put to flight. In order to knock out his human network, we need to hit them hard and hit them everywhere-keep them on the run and keep them looking over their shoulder.”

CSC: “And in order to prevent the various Daemon components from interacting, we stage a regional power outage immediately preceding operations. We exert our control over major media outlets to prevent the Daemon from reading the news-or we fabricate the news to suit our purposes.”

The directors seemed taken aback by the sudden turn in the discussion.

NSA: “What about the Daemon’s human operatives? Wouldn’t they still be able to communicate?”

EndoCorp: “This is classic infowar-which we invented. We have highly skilled cyber and electronic warfare experts. We’ll be monitoring Daemon activities in coming weeks. And as for the Daemon’s human operatives: they won’t stand up long against ex-Special Forces soldiers. We’ve operated successfully in Colombia against left-wing rebels and narco-terrorists, and in sub-Saharan Africa against Islamic rebels. Our men operate in small groups with minimal supervision-no legislative oversight necessary.”

CIA: “That’s fine in Colombia and sub-Saharan Africa, but how the hell are you going to sell that in Columbus, Ohio? And how do you tell friend from foe in a tech park server room?”

EndoCorp: “You don’t. We move in our own people to operate the data centers and detain the current staff until we can satisfy ourselves that they pose no risk.”

NSA: “This is crazy talk. You can’t round up IT workers in thousands of companies. You don’t have the manpower, for one thing. Also, a substantial percentage of the infected sites are in foreign countries. Most Fortune 500 companies have their back-office data processing operations in India and Southeast Asia.”

EndoCorp: “Borders mean nothing to us. We have private military provider and support firms in place in twenty-five countries, incorporated under a hundred different names. And we have influential voices in dozens more countries. Certain financial interests currently at risk are willing to underwrite this effort to protect the global economy.”

NSA: “The moment you attack, the Daemon will destroy the infected networks.”

FBI: “He’s right. There are too many targets to hit all at once.”

The CSC representative looked soberly around the table.

CSC: “That’s correct. That’s why we need to pick and choose. If we defend a cross-section of Western interests in numerous industries, the global economy can achieve survivability. But only if strategic investments are made in the shares of selected survivors. This can defray the loss of the other companies.”

The directors were speechless for a moment.

DARPA: “What about these ‘tools’ that Sobol mentioned?”

The faces shifted in his direction.

NSA: “It’s a programming interface of some type included in Sobol’s message. Group A has a team analyzing the components now. They suspect Sobol might be extending some form of communication with his Daemon. Perhaps even rudimentary control.”

FBI: “What kind of control?”

NSA: “For starters, there’s a function that, on demand, destroys the data of any chosen Daemon-infected company.”

Everyone immediately grasped the significance of this.

DARPA: “And this is still being broadcast around the world in an encrypted beacon?”

NSA: “Yes. Which means it’s only a matter of time until other governments have this knowledge, too.”

CIA: “Sobol’s forcing our hand.”

DARPA: “We’ll need to see that API as soon as possible. It could provide intelligence on the topology of the Daemon’s darknet.”

FBI: “You’re not seriously suggesting we start communicating with this thing? We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

NSA: “No one’s negotiating with anyone. This is an object library. We’re analyzing it.”

FBI: “Look, we’ve been messing around long enough. We need to kill it. It’s taken over a big chunk of the Fortune 500, and it can cause irreparable harm to this nation.”

CSC: “To the global economy.”

NSA: “That’s the whole point: if we make one move against it, the Daemon will flush all that corporate data down the toilet. And if we ignore it, then some other government might invoke the Destroy function to attack us.”

CSC: “We must attack it.”

NSA: “I don’t think losing three quarters of the companies is an option.”

EndoCorp: “You need to move on Sobol’s organization. Infiltrate it, identify all the ringleaders, nab them, turn the screws on them, and roll their whole damned group. We’ve done it before.”

CSC: “You’ll need handpicked teams.”

NSA: “Gentlemen, I hope we’re not disturbing your meeting.”

They looked impassively at the director.


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