Fiction: The Trojan Horse

Alexei finished doing a compile and uploaded the executable code to the test machine. He swiveled around in his chair and faced Ivan. "That's it, buddy. Over to you. I think I managed to outdo myself this time. I got my shit buried so deep there is no fucking way Symantec or McAfee is going to get it out, never mind detect it."

Ivan chuckled at this big talk bravado. "Okay Mr. Smartass, let me be the judge of that." He pointed then wiggled his index finger at Alexei in a sign of admonishment but he already knew that whatever Alexei had done, it was going to be brilliant. He swiveled in his chair to another console and started to tap away at the keyboard.

"What's up guys?" Dmitri strode into the room. He was the brains behind the outfit and always acted the part perpetually wearing a suit. Alexei noted that even if Dmitri took off his suit jacket, he never took off his tie.

"I've just uploaded the new version of the Trojan," said Alexei looking at Dmitri. "If I do say so, this is going to be a good one."

Dmitri smiled. "Good stuff, Alexei." Dmitri turned to Ivan. "You're going to put it through its paces?"

"I'm already on it," said Ivan without turning around.

"I just managed to snag ourselves a new contract with a group operating out of Hong Kong. If we can furnish them with email addresses and personal information for a fifty thousand, they will pay us a good buck. If we manage to give them a hundred thousand, they will give us all a very nice bonus. And we get more, the scale will go up. Let's just hope that this latest effort does the trick as we could be looking at a good profit."

Alexei had spent the past few months developing what he thought was the mother of all rootkits. Once this software was activated, it overwrote the boot sector of a computer and put in place a very clever but nasty series of checks and balances which provided a renewable buffer between the operating system and the hard disk. In a nutshell, once it was in place, it was virtually impossible to get it removed without wiping the entire hard drive clean and doing a fresh install. Alexei had inserted a number of load points into the O.S. itself so even if something put a fresh copy of the boot sector back, one of the other load points would kick in and restore the infected boot sector. If any of the anti-virus scanners kicked it, the Trojan would operate the disk interface so that any of the infected folders, the infected boot sector, or infected system files would be automatically replaced with a clean uninfected copy. Symantec or McAfee keep reporting everything was A-Okay because they could never gain access to the infection. The user would go about their day completely unaware that their machine was infected, their keystrokes were being recorded, and their personal information was being relayed back to Alexei's group through an untraceable worldwide anonymity network.

Dmitri and group had successfully deployed a number of such Trojans in the past two years. Anti-virus software eventually caught on to their work and they then had to modify their Trojan to further disguise their code, but all in all, any fresh deploy usually gave them several months to even a full year before a Trojan was rendered completely unusable. Despite the coverage in the newspapers of the computer virus and the importance of security, the general level of security wasn't all that good. The average home computer owner really had no clue of what was going on. They bought a machine; they surfed the Net; and they played games but they really had no idea of how anything worked.

Dmitri stood behind Ivan and watched him work on the test machine. The three of them had developed quite a little operation with a number of so-called products which netted them all a tidy profit. As well as viruses and Trojans, they had assisted a number of pharmaceutical web sites in emailing advertisements to millions of users to drum up sales, all with a commission of course. All in all, business was good.

"Are you taking Dominika to that new movie tonight?" Dmitri hadn't stopped watching Ivan but the question was directed to Alexei.

"Yeah, I thought so. I figured if I got out of here by 5, I'd have enough time for dinner before the seven thirty show." Alexei was lounging back in his seat looking at Ivan working on the test machine.

"Sounds good," said Dmitri. He half turned to Alexei but kept his eyes on the screen of the test computer.

There was a knock at the door. Ivan stopped typing. Dmitri turned and looked at Alexei. Alexei looked at Dmitri. All three of them had perplexed looks. Nobody knocked at their door. Ever. Nobody even knew they were there. Dmitri had rented the office space a few years back and had set up throughout the building a dummy company name so that no one would ever know about their operation.

"Who's that?" Alexei turned to the door.

"Beats me," said Dmitri. "Maybe it's the super."

Dmitri walked over to the door which led into the corridor. He turned the knob and pulled the door open to find a man in a suit holding a piece of paper. "Yes? May I help you?" Dmitri said in Russian.

The man hesitated and said in English, "Are you Mr. Dmitri Ivanov?"

"Yes," said Dmitri in English.

"Are those gentlemen Mr. Ivan Lebedev and Mr. Alexei Pavlov?"

Dmitri now looked quite perplexed. "Yes. Would you mind explaining what this is all about?"

"Not at all," said the man. He stepped to one side, turned to look up the hall and simply said, "Gentlemen," while gesturing to the open door.

The next few moments happened quickly, so quickly that Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei didn't have any time to grasp what was going on. Six men, six thugs rushed into the room from the hallway. They were all wearing latex gloves. The first two men stepped through the doorway and each grabbed one of Dmitri's arms and bodily picked him up off the floor and carried him into the centre of the room before forcefully seating him in a chair. The other four men paired off and two went to Ivan and two went to Alexei. Each man pulled out a roll of duct tape and started to fasten an arm to the arm of the chair.

Ivan and Dmitri were stunned into silence but Alexei started to yell. "Hey! You can't do that!" One of the two men standing over Alexei slapped him hard. For a moment, Alexei saw stars and immediately fell silent. Quickly and efficiently the men taped the arms and the legs of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei to their chairs. As a final step, they pulled out a rubber ball and forced it into each of their mouths then ran a band of tape around their head to ensure they couldn't spit the ball out.

In the meantime, the seventh man, the man in the suit, had shut the door to the corridor, found an empty chair and brought it around to sit down. He carefully seated himself, unbuttoned his suit jacket, and then nonchalantly crossed his legs. The other men grabbed the three chairs now securely holding Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei and lined them up facing the seventh man.

"Gentlemen, my name is Mr. Alan." He glanced at the paper he held in his latex gloved hand. "Now if I have this correctly, you are Dmitri Ivanov." Mr. Alan pointed to Dmitri. "And you are Ivan Lebedev and you are Alexei Pavlov." Mr. Alan pointed to each man in turn.

Mr. Alan folded the piece of paper and put it in an inside pocket in his suit coat. "I'm sure you are all curious as to who I am and why I am visiting you so we will dispense with the civilities and get right to the heart of the matter." He looked down and brushed a piece of lint off the one pant leg of his suit. He had the air of a man in control, a man with power.

"The three of you have been working together for about two years now producing various pieces of software of a dubious nature. You are working on the fringes of the computer world taking advantage of the security holes to be found in many systems and taking advantage of general gullibility of a naive public. Far be it for me to stand in judgement of anyone taking advantage of a naive public. Caveat emptor." Mr. Alan paused and looked at each of the three men in turn. It was obvious they were all quite scared.

"However, I am afraid you inadvertently targeted my organisation. We could argue that casting one's net on the Internet means that we cast a wide net without much concern as to where that net falls… such is the nature of the beast… but when one is attacked, when one is compromised, one does feel the need to take remedial action to ensure they remain safe and secure."

Mr. Alan turned to Alexei. "Mr. Pavlov, Alexei, I believe you are the author of the Trojan horse called the May Blackhole." Mr. Alan waited a moment as if to give Alexei a chance to respond but Alexei just stared wide-eyed at Mr. Alan. The ball gag prevented him from saying anything.

"This is an interesting bit of programming. Quite ingenious in fact: the way it first exploits the ignorance of the user but then how it worms its way into the operating system and begins to record keystrokes. From what I understand, and I understand little of these technical matters, it passes back to the host, that is you, all sorts of private and confidential information such as bank account numbers, PINs, passwords, etc. It's very intriguing just what you can find out about anybody if you are, so to speak, leaning over their shoulder and watching what they are doing at their computer. And with your key stroke recording, you are doing exactly that."

"Unfortunately, gentlemen, I can't allow you or anyone else to look over my shoulder. My operations are very important to me and very, very secret. Secrecy is the key to my success in fact. Which brings me to why I am here." Mr. Alan put one hand up to his mouth and slightly coughed. "Pardon." Mr. Alan smiled slightly. "I wonder if I may be coming down with something. Either that or it's jet lag."

"You gentlemen have stolen information, secret information from my organisation. I can't allow that to happen and I am here to take all the steps necessary to ensure that never happens again. I have had to spend quite a bit of time and resources, resources including money spent on consultants, anti-virus software, upgrading firewalls, etc., to better protect myself and my colleagues from outside malicious attacks such as yours perpetrated against my computer systems."

All eyes were fixed on Mr. Alan; the eyes of the three men and the eyes of his six cohorts. Mr. Alan was in command.

"Do you know what the total cost of spam is to the world? A recent report in the Journal of Economic Perspectives estimates the overall cost to be $20 billion. That takes into account lost productivity due to spam and the additional resources necessary to combat it. Twenty billion dollars! Gentlemen, that is a lot of money. Now if you and your buddies were making $20 billion, well, heck, I would want a slice of that pie but the fact is, what you make overall is a mere pittance in comparison to the cost to the world. The same report estimates the global profit to be only $200 million dollars. Imagine that for every dollar of profit you are causing one hundred times the damage. Sounds pretty inefficient to me."

"Of course, that is just talking about spam. If we move into the area of Trojans, viruses and what not, we've moved into the area of corporate espionage and who knows what fortunes can be made there?"

"Now my Russian friends here were of the mind to rid the world of your presence on a permanent basis. However, after careful reflection, I thought it would be better if not best to use your folly as an example to others who may tempted to prey on the weak and stupid but inadvertently target the strong and smart." Mr. Alan smiled. "You have to admit that you all being tied up right now is a display of strength and the very fact we're here should indicate we may be more than just a pretty face." Mr. Alan looked thoughtful. "Just imagine that we managed to find you. I wonder why the American CIA or some other secret government service hasn't zeroed in on you." He shrugged. "I guess you must be too small of a fish to fry. Hmph, many times we think we're perfectly safe at home in bed when in reality it's merely a question of somebody bigger having not yet set their sights on us."

Mr. Alan looked at his cohorts. "Would you three start on removing the storage?" Immediately three of the men started going around the room armed with screwdrivers taking apart computer cases and removing hard drives. They disconnected any laptops and took the entire machine. One man went into the next room to look for other equipment.

Mr. Alan turned back to the trio of virus programmers. "Now to best make an example of you, I need you to live. Therefore nothing fatal will be done. Nevertheless we must do something to serve as a detraction to the next group who may be thinking of entering this dubious field of endeavour." Mr. Alan uncrossed his legs and re-crossed them the opposite way. "I thought the easiest thing to do would be to remove a digit."

One of the Russian thugs pulled out a pair of wire cutters. The three programmers looked wide-eyed at the cutters. Alexei began to yell and thrash around in his chair in a vain attempt to get out of the duct tape. The chair teetered then fell onto one side with a thud. One of the other thugs pulled the chair back up onto its legs.

Mr. Alan calmly looked at this scene with utter detachment. He patiently regarded the three programmers knowing full well what was coming and nothing was going to stop it. "Are you familiar with Michael Moore?" He looked questioningly at each of them. "He's an American film maker who does excellent investigative documentaries. In his film Sicko about the American health care system, he talks with a gentleman who accidentally cut off the ends of two fingers in his table saw. Since he didn't have health insurance, he had to pay out of his own pocket to have the fingers re-attached. I'm not exactly sure how the hospital came up with this pricing schedule but they wanted $12,000 to re-attach the ring finger and $60,000 to re-attach the middle finger." Mr. Alan shook his head. "Just imagine that the United States is the only advanced industrialized nation which does not offer its citizens universal health care. Shameful."

"In any case, I estimated that the overall cost to my organisation due to your little security breach, changing passwords, moving accounts, reformatting hard drives, hiding transactions, etc. etc., probably worked out to about two hundred thousand dollars. It's amazing how you can rack up the costs but technology isn't cheap and if you want the best, you have to pay top dollar."

"So, I decided, based on the cost of $60,000 per finger, I would take the right middle finger of each of you for a grand total of $180,000. Not quite two hundred thousand but what the heck, I'll eat the difference."

"As I said, I wanted to create a deterrent out of this, a warning to others. Therefore, we are going to film the amputations and post them online. We will include your names and contact information so if anybody wants to verify the authenticity of the video clips, they can speak with you directly. Since you all speak English fluently, I'm sure this will be fairly easy to for you to enlighten most of the international crowd."

"Shall we begin?" One of the Russian thugs had a small video recording device and pointed it at Dmitri. Without warning, the other thug came forward, grabbed a hold of Dmitri's right hand, moved the cutters into place and snapped. Even though Dmitri had a ball gag his muffled yelling filled the room. Alexei started yelling and crying and shaking his chair around again. One of the thugs held it firmly so it wouldn't tip over again. Ivan remained completely silent. Mr. Alan glanced at Ivan and saw that he had wet himself.

The thug with the cutter moved to Alexei. Alexei let out a long muffled yell then his head pitched forward onto his chest. He had fainted. The thug snapped.

The thug with the cutter moved to Ivan. Ivan was perfectly quiet. He remained limp, passive. The thug amputated his finger and yet Ivan didn't react. Mr. Alan thought Ivan must be in shock.

"Bandage the wounds," said Mr. Alan. "We don't want anybody bleeding to death. These gentlemen are worth more to us alive than dead." The men set to work.

Three of the thugs came back into the room with a cardboard box filled with various items including four laptop computers. Mr. Alan glanced at the contents. "Is that everything?" They nodded.

"Gentlemen, our work here is done. And I would think your work is done here is as well." The thugs removed the duct tape and freed the three programmers.

Mr. Alan looked at each programmer in turn. "Dmitri, your wife is five months pregnant. You are going to be father to a boy. A boy needs a father. Go back to studying law. I'm sure you will make a good lawyer. Alexei? Dominika is a fine girl. Treat her well. She would make a good life partner. Ivan. You've got some good programming skills. There are many legitimate organisations who would like to have you. Seek them out."

All of the thugs shuffled out the door. Mr. Alan followed but paused at the door and looked back at them. "I trust we will never see one another again. I would very much hate to have to make a second visit because if I do, I guarantee you I will follow the advice of my Russian friends and it will be the last visit."

Mr. Alan stepped out in the hall and gently closed the door. Within an hour, the videos were posted on YouTube. Within two hours YouTube took them down but by that time people had copied the videos and posted them on various secondary video sharing sites along with the contact information of the three programmers. While the story did spread somewhat, many thought the videos consisted of special effects. Only a few people called Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei to confirm the story.

Six months later, Mr. Alan did come back to Russia but this time to visit a group calling themselves the Russian Freedom Fighters. This group of five rebel computer enthusiasts had managed to hack into some secondary systems connected to Mr. Alan's organisation. For this visit, Mr. Alan bowed to the guidance of his Russian friends and the Freedom Fighters ceased to exist. In a country of nearly 150 million people and a track record of questionable political stability, who's going to miss four men and a woman? Mr. Alan thought it was an unfortunate waste of talent but had realised over the years that some people seemed detached from the results of their actions. They wanted something from somebody and they didn't care if the other person suffered or not. They were determined to get what they wanted regardless of the price paid by the other person. Mr. Alan chuckled realising that idea was also applicable to him but in this instance, he just happened to have the bigger stick. There is no honour among thieves. I don't care if you steal, just don't steal from me. Period. Then again, he was doing his share to stop these nefarious people from possibly bleeding the system dry. A wise parasite doesn't kill its host. That would be suicide.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle

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