Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty: Takeover

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In which control of the computer system is seized.

———— Saturday, January 19, 2013 ————–

In the twilight of a machine room control center, a computer system administrator
is on the phone to one of her colleagues.

“Well, it’s definite. These are not the programs we were supposed
to be running. Cindy has found the back door that was used on her system and
it looks like the same backdoor exists on my system but they used a different
backdoor on my system. There’s no telling how many there are. Have everybody
copy this new version as part of their regular backups, and then install it
on some other machines not on the network. Then we can feed it some of the
traffic that’s been coming in the last few days a little at a time and
see what input causes the compromises.”

“If we do that at all the centers, we should be able to find most of
the backdoors.”

“Second, we’re going to have to replace this bogus software with
the good stuff and do repeated tripwires several times a day to find if anything
changes and what changes it. If we go down to replace the software one center
at a time, the other centers will refuse to accept the change just like they’re
supposed to. They’ll kick that one center out and not accept it back
until it is just like the others. So we have to do them all, or almost all,
at the same time. Also, to be sure the hackers don’t prevent that, we’ll
have to power down at the same time, get off the network, come up with the
original software, and then get back on the network at pretty much the same
time to reestablish the service.”

“I think all that is going to take most of a day to do. So when do you
think we could do it? I’d say not before next week at the earliest… Yeah,
me, too. We’ll check with Cindy because she’s probably going to
have the most problems with her boss… Well, when is he out?… Okay… Fine.
Let’s do it that day if we can.”

———— Tuesday, January 22, 2013————–

“Sir, I definitely think they’re planning something. They’re
talking about replacing code and powering down. They’re going to do something
big on February second.”

“Groundhog day? You got to be kidding. What’s Groundhog Day got
to do with anything?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because it’s a Saturday?”

“What do you think they’re up to?”

“I think they’re going to shut down every center at the same time,
replace the software that’s on their systems now with an older version,
and then come up all at once without our code in their systems.”

“So what? We just put our changes back after they come back up.”

“But they must know we compromised their systems. They’ll have
found at least some of our backdoors and such and removed them. We may not
be able to get back into their systems at all.”

“I thought you said our programs removed their tracks.”

“You can’t remove all traces if they’re monitoring everything.
They can keep track of everything the CPU does and all input that comes in
over the network. You can’t bypass everything.”

“You mean they could lock us out?”

“Well, yes, I guess you could put it that way.”

“Shit! I’ll have to get the boss in on this one.”

———— Friday, February 1, 2013 ————–

“Did you get paid yet?”

“Sure did. Didn’t you?”

“Sure. But I got some kind of bonus, I guess. It’s a lot more
than I was getting before.”

“Didn’t you ask the computer what you were paid for? I asked and
it said I got paid for crowd control, mostly, there were a bunch of things…
but that was the biggest. They must have liked the fact that nobody got hurt
and there wasn’t any riot at the drug store.”

“What are you going to use the money for?”

“I’m saving up for a new boat. If we get paid like this every
week, it won’t take long at all.”

“I’m going to pay for private school for Leroy. He’s in
third grade now and he still can’t even read at first grade level.”

“You don’t have to pay for that. That’s education. It’s
supposed to be free. Have you talked to the private school yet?”

“No. Are you sure it’s free? I mean public school is supposed
to be free but I thought private school was supposed to be a luxury.”

“All education is free, even for adults. It’s like anybody can
set up their own public school now and accept anybody that wants to enroll.
My wife’s going to take some courses at the business college.”

“I sure hope you’re right. I’ll check it out.”

———— 7:00 pm, Friday, February 1, 2013————–

“What are we supposed to go to the computer center for?”

“They say there is a conspiracy of the operators there. They are trying
to take over the computer for some reason.”

“You mean they are going to pay themselves a lot and keep it a secret?”

“I guess so. The boss didn’t say.”

“What are we supposed to do? We aren’t programmers…”

“We’re supposed to arrest the guys that work there.”

“All of them?”

“Yeah. All of them. Anybody we find there. We’re supposed to bring
them back here and hold them.”

“Back here?! This isn’t a jail. And who’s going to run the

“That’s not our problem. Just get your stuff and come on.”

“Just a minute, I gotta go to the bathroom.”

“Okay, but hurry up. We’re supposed to be there in an hour. We’re
meeting the other guys downstairs. Remember, you’re just a payer. We
don’t have to wait for you. If you can’t keep up, we’ll just
leave you behind.”

“Oh I’ll keep up, but it’ll be easier if I can get rid of
some of dinner first.”

————- 7:10 pm, Friday, February 1, 2013 ———–

“The FBI is coming to arrest us? Why?”

“Rip didn’t say. He just said that they’d get here within
an hour or so. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to get to work early.”

She pressed buttons on her phone, paused and said, “Cindy? It’s
hitting the fan. The FBI’s coming for us. And if they’re coming
for us, they’re probably hitting all the centers. We’re going to have
to do it now, ready or not. You’re probably the most vulnerable, from
what you’ve told me about your boss. It’s your choice, of course,
whether you risk it. I’ll call the others and spread the word.”

She pressed buttons again, paused and said, “Security? The FBI is going
to try to arrest everyone at the center… No, we don’t know why
but we think it’s part of a plot to take over the money system. Get all
the security you can find and guard the place from anyone you don’t know,
especially if they claim to be Federal government. I’ll be there as soon
as I can.”

Then she began quickly making calls to other centers.

———— 7:20 pm, Friday, February 1, 2013 ———–

“Look at it this way; let’s assume that the order actually is
from higher headquarters rather than some bizarre practical joke. We’re
talking about the money computers. If one center starts showing different values
than some other center, then that one is isolated and ignored by the grid while
its problem is found and fixed. So, if a renegade group of programmers tried
to take over a single center to make themselves rich, it wouldn’t work,

“Right,” reluctantly.

“So it doesn’t make sense that it would be necessary for the FBI
to arrest everyone at the center right away on an emergency basis before warrants
can be arranged, does it? After all, what horrible action could just one center
take that would justify circumventing the law? Therefore, it must be that all
the centers’ personnel are being arrested. If that is the case, then
it must be some plot by all the programmers and all the staff of all the centers.
But that doesn’t make sense either, does it? No, those folks would be
obvious if they suddenly showed up rich. They would convict themselves if they
tried such a thing. They would never get away with it. But even if they tried,
that would still not be an emergency, right?”

“Okay, I see what you mean.”

“So the crime being committed must be in the issuing of the command
to you. If you obey that command, you will be doing more harm than good. There’s
no immediate threat that would justify acting without warrants. And, there’s
no crime specified in your orders. You’d be a fool to obey those orders.”

“I guess so.”

“You’re going to have to do more than guess. You are going to
have to act.”

——— 8:03 pm, Friday, February 1, 2013 ———-

“We are agents of the Federal Government. You have no right to keep
us out. Stand aside.”

“You got a warrant? You got any authorization that says I have to let
you in here? I don’t even let Payers in here unless I know them and I
don’t know you from Adam.”

“What’s your name? Let me see some identification.”

“Look at the badge on my shirt. Look at the name tag. See there? It
says Fred Gundersen. Now you know all you need to know about me.”

The standoff had just begun, but already it showed signs of being a long one.
The six FBI agents and the two Payers that accompanied them were faced by four
uniformed security guards, one payer, and several local police. The head of
the FBI party was the upset, well-dressed, dignified-looking man who was about
to burst a blood vessel. At his side a payer, dressed in tan pants and a white
shirt, was trying to reason with him.

“Jerry, you don’t have warrants, do you? You were just supposed
to arrest people you found here with no indication of what crime had been committed
or anything. I don’t think that’s legal, Jerry. I can’t pay
you for doing something that’s illegal, can I now?”

“Shut up, old man,” Jerry said to the payer then turned to the
guard at the gate and said, “We’ll be back with warrants and you’ll
let us in if you know what’s good for you.”

———– 9:30 pm, Friday, February 1, 2013 ———–

“The FBI’s trying to do what? Why would they want to take over
the money computers?”

“Our sources don’t know but it looks like it’s happening
all over the country. Do we print this or let it slide?”

The editor paused then put his head in his hands and slumped over his desk.
After a few moments his back straightened and when he dropped his hands his
face was rather grim.

“Print it. I’ll be out of the office with a terrible headache.
I’ll be looking for a drug store that’s open. My head is hurting
so bad that I can’t think, so even if I call and say to kill this story,
print it anyway and get it on the front page. Have it delivered if at all possible.
You understand?”

“Yes. I think I do understand. Sorry about your headache. Wish I knew
of a drugstore open in the area, but with your head hurting so bad I don’t
think you should be driving. Also I think I’ll put this item on the wire
just in case some of the other papers haven’t got it yet. Oh, and I sure
hope you don’t forget to take your cell phone with you. It would be unfortunate
if we couldn’t get in touch with you for a couple of hours.”

———— 9:10 am, Saturday, February 2, 2013 ————-

“Daddy, can I have the big one in the green dress?”

“Sure honey. It’s your birthday and I told you could have whatever
you wanted as long as it didn’t cost more than $50. Here, I’ll
get it down for you and you can carry it to the clerk for yourself.”

“She’s almost as big as me, isn’t she Daddy?”

“Yes dear, she can be your big sister.”

“I don’t want her to be a big sister Daddy. I’m six now.
I want a little sister. She’s just five and I’m her big sister.”

“You sure are dear. You are a big girl now. Can you put your little
sister on the counter all by yourself?”

“Yes Daddy.”

“That will be $42, sir… Aren’t you the pretty one? Is it
a special present just for you?”

“Yes ma’am. It’s my birthday. I’m six.”

“I want to buy this doll.”

There is no response from the terminal.

“What happened? It’s supposed to talk back to me isn’t it?”

“Yes it is. I don’t understand. Computer? Computer? It isn’t
responding. Let me get this keyboard.” The clerk pulls a keyboard up
from below the counter and types the keys quickly. Then she pauses, types some
more and shakes her head. “This computer’s fine but it’s
not connecting to the central computer. Wait a minute.” She types still
more. “No, it’s gone. I’m sorry. It should be up in a few
minutes. Would you like to wait?”

“What’s wrong Daddy? Can I have the doll now? Please Daddy, can

“No, dear. There’s something wrong with the computer. We’ll
come back Monday and get the doll. Momma’s waiting for us right now.”

“But it’s my birthday, Daddy and I want the doll right now. You
said I could have it now, Daddy.”

“Tell you what we can do, sir. I’ll just record your voice saying
you’ll come in Monday and pay for the doll and then the birthday girl
can play with it right away. Would that be all right?”

“Say yes, Daddy.”

“Thanks very much. Yes, that would be fine. What do I say?”

The clerk brings out a device that looks quite like a cell phone, presses
a couple of keys and holds it out to Daddy. “Just say you want to buy
this item number here.”

“I am Julian Martinez and I want to buy item number ____ and I’ll
come back tomorrow to pay for it.”

“That should do it. Please bring this label with you when you come in.
I don’t think the birthday girl will miss that.”

“Let’s go show Mommy my new dolly. Come on, Daddy!”

———- 11:05 am, Saturday, February 2, 2013 ——–

“Three out of 60? You mean we only got three centers out of 60? That’s
only 5%. What kind of incompetent agents have we got working for us anyway?”

“Well, in some cases the agents wouldn’t even try. In others the
word leaked and the centers wouldn’t let them in. Since they didn’t
want a gun battle, the agents backed off. In one case there was some gunplay
and the agents killed two guards to get in. The programmers hit the emergency
power down button and every computer, switch, disk drive and phone in the whole
place went dead. The three centers we did get are stone cold.”

“What about the others, can we get the local police to help?”

“I don’t think so. In most places the police are guarding the
centers by now. In a few places the police are staying out of it but every
center has at least some civilians who are coming in to join the center guards.
We’re going to need to use some military force to take these places.”

“Damn. That means authorization from the Secretary. Well what must be

———— 1:40 pm, Saturday, February 2, 2013 ————-

“What do you mean we need to shut down the phone system? Are you out
of your mind? We can’t do that. Well we can, but…”

“Sir, we have half the country talking about the attempted takeover
of the computer centers. We can’t tell the plotters from the busybodies
and the gossipers. Even our military installations are being flooded with calls
about it. I’m not sure the troops are going to cooperate on this one.
If we don’t shut down the phones, the centers will be able to stay in
touch with each other and coordinate their actions. They can rouse support.
Even the Payers are telling each other to get people to help the centers.”

“Why didn’t the monitoring software stop them? I thought we were
listening to every phone conversation in the country by our computers. I thought
we were watching everybody. How could they pull this without us knowing about

“Well, you see, sir, computers are really stupid. I mean they can do
some things really fast. But they can’t distinguish plotting from other
conversations. The only reason we spotted it at all was that we put some warning
thresholds in place for the centers that would set off alarms if certain words
were used very often. Then we knew they were talking about security but they
do that all the time. It could have been some security problems that had nothing
to do with us. By the time we established that they were detecting our programs
it was too late. They just kept ahead of us.”

“But why were we detected in the first place? I mean we would have known
if some manager put the kind of monitoring that caught us on the work schedule.
But none of them did. So why did those programmers do all that extra checking?
I mean it must have been quite a lot of work to write all those programs.”

“Yes, sir. But it seems that the Payers told them they’d be paid
a lot for preventing hacking and break-ins and such. They were doing it on
their own. They weren’t told to do it. Of course, some of them do that
sort of thing for fun. They are geeks, you know sir.”

“Well, why did the FBI agents refuse to arrest the center personnel
at so many centers? I thought they were highly disciplined.”

“We’ve been looking into that also, sir. It seems that they thought
it wasn’t the right thing to do. They thought the Payers wouldn’t
like it if they took over the money computers. They didn’t think they’d
be paid if they did.”

“It looks like we’ve lost control. If we try to send in the military
and they don’t go, then we ourselves will go next. It’s time for

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“Here’s what we’ll have to do. We’ll say that the
programs were just to monitor the money computers and were not intended as
a means to cheat or control the payments. We’ll say that some junior
administrator panicked when he saw the monitoring programs being detected and
tried to stop it by asking the FBI to intervene. We’ll say that for the
good of the nation someone has to monitor the functioning of the money computers
and we are the people’s elected representatives who are best qualified
to do the job.”

“This isn’t a disaster, it’s just a setback. We’re
still in charge here.”

“Mr. President, we have more problems than the computers. You remember
that I told you that lots of the agencies have been losing personnel? Well
it’s been getting worse rather than slowing. We’ve been promising
them pay, in Euros in some cases, but they say there isn’t anything for
them to do now and they aren’t getting paid at all. When the Payers made
deposits on their usual payday, the first of February, they didn’t get
paid and lots of their friends did get paid. They’re beginning to quit
in very large numbers, sir.”

“Well, I can’t blame them. I’d want to get paid, too.”

“Sir, the worst of it is it’s the secretary types and the lower
level people who are quitting the most. We could get along pretty well if it
were the department heads or middle managers who were quitting but when all
the secretaries in an office quit within a week of each other the office just
stops functioning.”

“What can we offer them to get them back?”

“That’s just it sir, there isn’t anything we can offer them.
We don’t have anywhere near enough currency from other nations to pay
with, and we don’t have any mechanism to distribute it if we did have
the currency.”

“Well what about the industrialists? Do we still control the company
heads and the media types?”

“No, sir. We don’t have the staff to monitor them any more. I
mean the computers are still putting the information in the databases and I
can still listen in to almost any boardroom in the country but without the
staff there won’t be anything I can do. Right now we’re getting
by on residual fear and respect. If they ever find out we can’t do anything
to them, they’ll be out of control altogether.

———— 3:15 pm, Saturday, February 2, 2013 ————–

[Conference call of all 60 money computer center directors]

So we are agreed. All the code running on the money servers will be open.
Anybody can look at the source. Anybody that finds a bug or a vulnerability
and lets us know about it, the Payers say will deserve to be paid. We all match
code and install at the same time.

Now about detecting the next attack, we need to monitor every byte that comes
in and every byte that goes out. It will slow us down some but we have plenty
of time. I think every center should do its own testing in its own way. We
don’t want to all do exactly the same things because that would be too
easy to breach. What worked one place would work everywhere.

Third, for physical security we need to have better defenses. The centers
should be on camera in lots of places and be hardened. We can’t do this
ourselves but we hope the Payers will agree that we don’t want a few
gangs of thugs to be able to take over the centers.

Finally, we call for a national investigation of how such activities could
be considered appropriate for this administration.

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