My job started out simple. Find the bad guys, ban them, and move onto the next threat assessment. I wish it stayed that simple.
You can probably infer that cyber-security is a growing field in 2018. So much so that it has sidled beside law, finance, and medicine as one of the highest-paying majors. These days, the big banks hire as many young college graduates as they can get their hands on. Computer science and Information technology are preferred studies, but most places will take just about anybody with a respectable degree. Lack of serious work experience is rarely an issue. Students are supposedly trained as they work.
Interviewers like to say they look for ‘out of the box’ thinkers. That phrase translates from bullshit to any cube-monkey order-taker with a decent GPA.
I landed my gig at the ripe age of twenty-two.
Earning the position meant moving away from the college dorms to a new city. The firm paid for my relocation, luckily, and I was set up with a swanky loft in the heart of downtown festivities. Not that I used it much. Most of my days were spent in the office building or in bed.
New hires started in June, and for the first two weeks, we were given an orientation on the basics of the company. Anyone who has ever worked for a Fortune 500 knows the drill. Learn the mission statement, do some trust falls, ice breakers, introductions… you know; typical corporate bullshit. All the best big-wigs thrive on their so-called soft skills.
I made a few fickle friends. But most of the ‘students’ were unbearable suck-ups set on starting their career in all the wrong ways. The women wore power suits and the men donned their best Brooks Brothers; all for an entry-level position. There was one girl named Nandini that asked a question at the end of every boring lecture.
“How can we improve our potential to learn?“
“What are some tips and tricks you have for managing your career?“
The white noise of their fake positivity was impossible to tune out. After ten business days of absolute agony, it finally ended. We were free to start our formal positions.
It was around that time that I finally started to feel some passion for the industry. Working in cyber-security can be fun when you are well protected. My particular team was responsible for denying Dedicated Denials of Service. DDoS attackers are capable of spamming a website’s login function millions of times in a single moment. The purpose of these attacks is to overload the servers past their capacity. The end result is that if the website does not crash, it is significantly slowed down.
My job was to sift through the attacks and ban IP addresses. Any similar patterns resulted in a ban. Most days it was a game of ping-pong. Good hackers reading this will know that they can easily re-route their IP address among a hundred countries simultaneously. It was our responsibility to look for other identifying signatures that would catch them instead.
Believe it or not, I was good. In the third week, I outranked all of the new hires. There were no metrics to keep track of that kind of information, of course. Doing so would be a massive Human Resources violation. But it was on the faces of all the managers. The way they greeted me, spoke to me, asked for my ideas… my star was rising. If there was anybody that was going to get promoted past entry-level in the next six months, everybody knew it was me.
If I sound arrogant, it’s because I was. That all started to change over the course of last week.
As soon as I got back from a break late Monday, there were red lights above our workstations that signified a major outage. Anytime bank customers are left without access to their information or money is a massive liability for the firm. Naturally, everyone on my team was hard at work and hovered over their monitors when I shuffled back silently.
Banning individual IPs did nothing to slow down the traffic. But there was one detail that could still help. Official VPN companies leave behind breadcrumbs to distinguish themselves. If you know what phrases to look for, it’s possible to ban that network cluster altogether.
I pounded away at my keyboard, adding the buzzwords into our ban list just as a message box from the Intranet chirped beside me.
Operator: Why ban my location when I know yours?
It came from the companies internal messenger, so I ignored the message. I figured it was my manager or someone playing a joke to lighten the tension.
But then he replied again.
Operator: 212 Jumping Brook Avenue. There will be a surprise there for you.
That made me stop for a second. No one at the office knew my address.
When my ban list went live, the computer generated bar chart above our workstations lit up like a firecracker. In a second, five hundred thousand false login requests were wiped from the map. The metric designed to represent server capacity dropped from 100% to 20%. We were back online.
Operator signed off.
In a moment, there was a clap on my back and a chuckle from behind me. I quickly minimized my windows on instinct, and turned to see my boss and a couple fellow newbies circled around my chair.
“We are going to need a write up on how you pulled that one off. Mark thought this one was going to require escalation.“
I nodded and gave an awkward smile, feeling my face run red. There was no need for serious concern yet. I thought it could still be a prank, and falling for it in our profession would be pretty shameful when I was on such a serious run.
I used all of my remaining hour trying to track Operator. But the more effort spent, the more it felt like a dead end. It seemed likely that he or she was an occupant of the building. There were not many other ways to get through our Virtual Private Network. Then again, it also seemed likely that the same person was responsible for the perfectly timed DDoS. Those two conflicting factors made it unlikely that this mysterious message was from anybody I knew.
The car ride home was a cacophony of ragged coughs and clustered nerves.
If Operator knew my address, there were any number of things they could do. I was still sadly clinging to the hope of some friendly new-guy joke when my car pulled into the driveway.
There was an Amazon package in front of the door that I shoved under my arm before unlocking. I didn’t remember ordering anything, but the oddity was at the back of my mind at the time.
The first thing that felt truly wrong was that my dog didn’t come running to greet me. Lola is a beautiful German Shepherd. She is only one year old. Sometimes… when Lolly gets so excited to see me, she pees. But the pup was nowhere to be seen.
The second was that the door sensor did not send a notification to my phone. The third was the voice of my SmartHome.
“Welcome back, Matt. Get any good mail lately?“
“I hope you enjoyed your purchase. Please rate this experience online.“
I took two steps forward into my kitchen. Unsure of what to do next, I ripped open the Amazon envelope to find a tattered and heavily used book.
It was titled The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell, and there was a handwritten note nestled inside the inner page. It read –
“I learned your name.“
“It seemed time to share my favorite game.“
“The rules are nowhere near the same.“
“But I already know where to aim.“
The only thing that shook my shock and silence was the sound of a Sherpherd scraping at the floor.
She tackled me as soon as soon as I swung open the door. That was not like her. After a few quick licks and paws to the face, the pup ran off in the direction of the staircase.
It reminded me of those clips circulating the Internet; where a kid holds up a sheet to the dog and darts away before it drops. She was looking for something. Or someone.
But she never found it. There was a foreign red collar around her neck. That set up a sleepless night with her by my side.
The next day was Tuesday. For one thing, the stress of going to work and explaining the situation to my new boss was stressful on its own. For another, I was scared to leave the pup alone. I dropped her off at a local kennel to ease my stress and slumped my way into work at seven AM sharp.
As soon as I logged into the messenger, I received a ping from a familiar source.
Operator: Enjoy my gift?
Me: This isn’t funny.
Operator: Ah, a reply. Thank you.
Operator: Yes, it is very funny.
I waited some more.
Operator: You actually thought you made an impression here, didn’t you?
Operator: Some stoner off the streets worth half a shit?
Operator: You sit there in that stupid chair, twirling your hair like everyone cares. The truth is that you are worthless. When you talk about technology, the whole room cringes.
Me: So you do work here.
Operator: Do I? Check the IP.
I checked. Operator was located in Shanghai, China.
Operator: Remember Minor’s last lecture when you tried talking about that?
Operator: The sixty-year-old idiots reporting to the CEO structure are too ancient to know the difference. They applaud like monkeys to any moronic idea wrapped up in affable enthusiasm and social graces.
Me: They called on me. I had to say something.
Operator: PEOPLE LIKE ME KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.
My only thought was that keeping him angry could spill something.
Me: And what’s the difference? What do you care?
He changed the subject abruptly.
Operator: Where am I now?
I checked again. Utah.
Operator: Oooh. A little closer to home, right? Why so surprised? Were you born there or something?
Operator: I am so sorry. Do Mommy and Daddy still live in little Salt Lake City, Matty?
Operator: You know that I already know the answer to that.
Operator: I know everything.
Operator: I know about sweet Susie. The one you used to fuck in 2013. I saw her tits in that porn movie. Have you seen it?
Operator: I know about your brother, Billy, and his pesky little weed conviction in 2015.
Operator: And yes. The answer to the question you are sitting on. I know about your son.
My insides felt like ice and butterflies combined.
Operator: C’mon, you gotta give it to me. That one’s good. Even Mom doesn’t know about Christopher.
Operator: He’s four now, right? May 15th? God they grow up fast. Good old Cindy from college. I bet you thought it was just a fuck and run. Didn’t you?
Me: What do you want?
Operator: I don’t want to bite.
Operator: Maybe just bark a bit.
Operator: Check my location again.
The ping that our internal tool used responded quicker than before. Operator was located at 214 Arthur Avenue.
It took a second to register that was the same location as Lola.
For all the critics who questioned my knowledge cyber-security tactics and terminology… you got me. I’ll never claim to be something I’m not again. The real deal is that I only lasted those few weeks in the field.
The game was over. It was that simple. I shouted across the room to my boss –
And ran out the door with my bag slung over my shoulder. I threw it to the floor after accounting for company property. Hopefully the computer didn’t break.
The kennel was a two minute drive from the office park. I pulled out my cell phone and called them on the way over. They described a man with short brown hair leaving with Lola under his care. They gave no excuse except that he paid cash and that we looked alike.
A moment later, my wheels thudded into the gravel parking lot.
In the back corner, covered by shade, was a thin shadow struggling to stuff a German Shepherd into his sport-car. It’s corny to say… but my reaction was instinctual.
I threw the car into park without even hitting the breaks. The momentum was enough to throw me forward, causing my head to smack the steering.
When the man saw me, he panicked and tried to run away. It only took a couple seconds to catch up. I landed a punch to the side of his hooded head and sent him to the floor with a groan.
Lola took over from there.
A lot of people underestimate the strength of a big dog that feels it has been wronged. My girl was always defensive.
When she ripped at his ear, the man screamed horribly for help. But I wasn’t offering any. The vet staff was only just coming out of the office. It could wait a bit.
She really was savage. In six minutes; my sweet pup mauled half of the man’s face. I watched the whole thing. Maybe I could have saved the bits and pieces of his nose. And yet, something about the scene was sickly satisfying.
He ended the encounter half deaf and lucky we let him live.
The cops were ready to arrest me and kill Lola when they arrived. After spending eight excruciating hours in the station explaining this story, they finally understood my side.
Eventually I was given the full story. The mystery man was married to a woman named Nandini. The police asked if the name sounded familiar to me.
Operator sat in cubicle twenty-three.