Murder by Chatroulette
I was the latest version of Doctor Who and my current traveling companion, Scarlett Johansson, was on the phone saying: "You'd better get over here, I wouldn't call you this late if it wasn't important." Somehow I woke up and realized it wasn't Scarlett calling and I wasn't Doctor Who and with great effort I squinted at the display on my phone--it was two o'clock in the morning. My assistant Liese never calls me this late so I tried a little harder to force my eyes open and wished for coffee. "What is it?" I asked, part of me reluctant to hear the answer. "I think someone is intending to commit murder on Chatroulette."
I unplugged my bluetooth from the charger and stuck it into my ear and waited for it to hook up. "I'm sorry, I can hear you better now. You said murder and chat roulette. Do you mean russian roulette?" "No." she said, "But you're close, the inspiration came from a russian roulette scene in the movie 'Deer Hunter.' " It took me a second before it came to me ..."Wait a minute"--the fog was starting to lift--"you mean the chat program you like that switches you randomly to webcams all over the world? What makes you think a social site is involved in a murder?"
I thought about how seventeen year old Andrey Ternovskiy couldn't find a site that let you randomly visit webcams so he built Chatroulette for his friends on an old computer in three days. His friends were lukewarm about the idea so he got 20 people from web forums to try it. These 20 dweebs, who probably needed any chance to score, at least virtually, with someone, told their friends and their friends told theirs and the site visitors doubled every day. Now tens of millions visit--over a million a day. With all kinds of wierdos acting out in the program, it was no surprise that Liese had added it to the watch list.
"Liese, right now my brain can only imagine someone being terminally grossed out or someone dying of embarrassment for being 'nexted' so many times, so you'll have to help me out."
Liese is smolderingly attractive, a master of cyberspace analytics , out Houdini's encrypted files, can build her own hardware and intuitively craft a program faster than I can butter bread, (especially when the butter's been in the freezer and you have to shave it off in little sheets...but I'm digressing.)
She replied. "I don't blame you for wondering how a chat program can be used to commit a murder and but Oz, I'm serious, not only is it possible, I'm afraid it's already happened."
I better stop here and give you a little background. My name is Ozmyndius "Oz" Hamilton. (Not the comic book hero or Ramesses the Great, they both spell theirs differently.) Partly because I had more solve rates than any rookie detective in Austin's history and partly because I stepped on one too many toes doing it, I was "promoted" to a little known and barely tolerated branch of Homeland Security that monitors bizarre internet activity. It's formal name is International Digital Threat Forensics and Security, but someone started calling us "ispooks" and the name stuck.
Borrowing a page from Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, Liese was the one who stayed with me from Austin and she is one wizard I have learned not to ignore. I did a quick shower and because it was 2:30 am, made it to the office in record time.
Our office is one of the smaller, non-renovated buildings in the old St. Elizabeth's Hospital campus in DC, formally a hospital for the insane. We and soon the DHS will be bumping around with the ghosts of former inmates--the man who tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson, the man who shot President Theodore Roosevelt and the man who seriously wounded President Ronald Reagan. Someone remarked (if you say it was me, I will deny it) that when the Homeland Security does move in all the psychos will finally be in one place.
Liese had been up for hours and she still looked amazing, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail, an Olivia Wilde body comfortable in a light green sweater and faded denims busily studying her giant screen monitor. It displayed a map of the world dotted with red and green squares, with clusters of white ones. She turned toward me as I walked to her. "Sorry Oz." She said. "Don't be silly." I said. "You did the right thing. Let's have it." I pointed at the screen. There it was, a hint of a smile as she turned back. "As you know my computer intercepts several target words like 'bomb' and their components, words like 'kill' or 'murder,' well last night it caught several hits with the target word 'murder.' "
"I saw some of those." I said. "Selena Gomez is getting death threats because there are pictures of her kissing Justin Bieber. One fan said: 'I'm gonna kill you tonight under your smelly bed!' and there are thousands trashing Rebecca Black for her viral song 'Friday.' What makes this one worth getting us out of bed? "
The part of the old hospital we are in has these giant arched ceiling windows and the moon, soft velvet beige, was framed in the center of them. Liese's eyes were green with little specks of gold and as she talked, her voice took on a magnetic cadence. "You'll see when I show you the numbers. The green squares are times and locations for the word 'murder' on chatroulette and the red ones are actual deaths or attempts that have occurred in the world. As you can see, many of these squares overlap."
Liese's program, she calls it "Matchbot," was primitive when we started and still it helped us catch an animal rights terrorist by tying a mailing list of mink suppliers to some very dirty mail bombs. It's in it's tenth version or so by now and is scary capable, but even her program doesn't match up everything. "How did you run across this?" I asked. She paused and started to turn a slight red. She was looking down at an untied shoelace. Lacoste tennies, Liese has excellent taste.
"It was on my own time. I was talking to someone on Chatroulette. We were having a really good conversation and a glitch cut him off in mid-sentence and some crackpot holding up a sign appeared. I'm ashamed to say I was more concerned with losing my connection than what the sign said. Anyway, I hacked into the chatroulette system to see if I could trace my connection and that's when I found it." "Your new random boyfriend?" I asked. "No. Someone had been in before me and left more of those disturbing signs. Whoever had been there wrote a code so that hand-held signs pop up randomly from different parts of the world and it's what they said that made me call you."
She pulled up a screen of what looked like a male figure with a blue ski mask over his head, holding up a sign with black marker letters saying: "Google has forgotten their promise, 'Don't be evil' and now their keywords will die." I must have looked incredulous because she hurried to explain. "I didn't make much of it either until I started looking at the other ones. That's when matchbot kicked in." She put the map back up.
"Following the cues in some of the signs that have surfaced, I keyed in last years fastest rising in entertainment--Justin Bieber, Shakera, Eminem, Netflix, Youtube videos, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Nicki Minaj, Grooveshark, and Transformers 3 and compared news articles about them to the Chatroulette matchup. Three of the people on this list have had either murder threats or attempts on their lives." She hit a button and orange squares overlapped the green and red matchups. The timing and locations couldn't be a coincidence.
She continued. "Whoever is behind this either is doing a lot of travel or they have a lot of support. There was a shooting during an Eminem concert in Australia and a few days later Lady Gaga was almost injured in Houston when a piano stool she was standing on collapsed." I had to say it. "Those could have been random." She was patient. "I know, these were dismissed by the authorities at each location, but Oz, the signs predicting them were on Chatroulette before they happened!"
I looked around at the state of the art lab and the colorful workstations noticeably vacant and added: "I want to know everything you know so far and then we need Rosh, Graham and Meg. I want this kept between us. If DHS gets a whiff of this.." She interrupted me. "It'll be like the last time, we do all the work and they get the credit." I took a deep breath. "Worse, we won't even be in the loop."
Martin Weaverton, the smarmy DHS Director of Media and Communications is short, anorexically thin, wears small horn-rimmed glasses and tweed jackets with a starched three point hanky in his pocket. Unusually small eyes peek out beneath bushy eyebrows and an oily sheen reflects off the bald head under his unsuccessful comb-over. He disapproves of us and so when we asked to transfer our offices to the new location, Weaverton was only too happy to let us. Being the small-minded, vindictive weasel that he is, however, he will not rest until he gets us thrown out of the department and while I consider him incompetent, we are now running silent on all high profile cases.
Graham and Meg were in their mini computer labs by the time I got up to speed. Graham's English butler persona cloaks a formidable past. In addition to a degree in Sociopathic Psychoanalysis, he's broken air speed records in a jet he built himself and has been on more black ops than most of the current firm agents. Even though he and my Dad had been in missions together, I was still surprised when he came out of retirement and asked to work in my department. It is our great fortune that he has adopted us and most of the time it is his calm word at the right time that keeps us from doing something really stupid.
He was already doing a psych model for our suspect and had a list of potential motives for me. "There are some directions we can go based on the wording. His going after Google because of some alleged evil direction on their part could mean he may have had a stake in their original goals--maybe a past or even current employee." Graham handed us a printout. "John Battelle, of Wired magazine, wrote a book on Google called "The Search" that explains the origin of the slogan. This will give you a hint, but it wouldn't hurt to read his book."
On July 19, 2001, about a dozen early employees met to mull over the founders' directive [to elucidate Google's core values] ... The meeting soon became cluttered with the kind of easy and safe corporate clichés that everyone can support, but that carry little impact: Treat Everyone with Respect, for example, or Be on Time for Meetings.
The engineers in the room were rolling their eyes. [Amit] Patel recalls: "Some of us were very anticorporate, and we didn't like the idea of all these specific rules. And engineers in general like efficiency — there had to be a way to say all these things in one statement, as opposed to being so specific."
That's when Paul Buchheit, another engineer in the group, blurted out what would become the most important three words in Google's corporate history. "Paul said, 'All of these things can be covered by just saying, Don't Be Evil,'" Patel recalls. "And it just kind of stuck."
Graham continued. "Our suspect has adopted a username, BevilCarnage, and 'Be Evil' is a pretty obvious reverse of that slogan. The 'Carnage' could just be what he's prepared to do."
I nodded. "Graham, set up an appointment with Eric Schmidt, their outgoing CEO. He may shed some light on any former disgruntled employees ." Graham responded: "Good idea, also, there have been a number of suits by smaller companies alleging unfair business practices, there might be some leads there." "Just get us some names." I said.
"Google's is so big now it is attracting a lot of heat." Said Meg. "I'll see if I can identify and narrow down the potential enemies of Google, those who have or who are presently suing them and I'll focus especially on those with ties to Chatroulette." It takes some getting used to, hearing such mature words coming out of a cosplay look-alike.
Megumi Oshiro Dawson was the first ispook, mainly because she was well on her way before we even got started. Don't let the big anime eyes and hair, petit figure and enigmatic smile fool you. Underneath the little girl persona lies a ferocious and devastating talent. Her father invented much of the technology in communications satellites and took her with him all over the world. A language prodigy, Meg became fluent in over eleven languages including Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. Often spending much of her time idle while her dad worked, armed only with a laptop equipped with proprietary satellite capability, she mastered every computer language until they reached their limit and then she invented one of her own. Before her dad died in one of the towers in 911, he spent the remaining battery of his cell phone talking to her, telling her things she never talks about but which ignited something that set her on a cataclysmic rendevous with some of the most powerful figures of our time.
Using the online name "Deathstar," she brought down a few terrorist-friendly sites and quietly hacked into an NSA reconnaisance satelite, installed her own monitoring protocol and listened for post-tower chatter. she was the one who leaked a convincing dossier on the connection of Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden and his frequent visits to Islamabad. Her online forays were even more outrageous and she raided the intelligence of any government she thought competent.
In one months time she had her targets, but she also uncovered plans for an even bigger action of terror against the United States. Cross checking her sources she came to the chilling conclusion that disaster was coming and she was the only one who knew.
That's where our paths crossed. I wrote a small blog on Cyber Warfare with an impressive following. When classified material started mysteriously appearing in my hard drive in a folder marked "Deathstar," I was both intrigued and nervous. Little by little, she let down her guard as I left messages in the folder and made use of her material in my blog. When I was made the head of what we now call "ispooks," I asked her to join us. We have a measure of trust, but both of us know that there are two agendas at work--mine and one from a ghost in a tower.
"I will start with the engineer Paul Buchheit." I told Meg who anticipated my next question and after a flurry of keys, said: "After he created their Gmail program he left to work with a start-up called FriendFeed." Meg looked up from her screen, "He's in town for a seminar, you can catch him at the Smithsonian computer history exhibit between 2:30 and 4:00."
I stopped and leaned over and spoke to Liese. "Try to see if you can predict where this guy is going to strike next. I'd really like to be there when he tries." She flashed one of her muted smiles--the one that only melts hearts of titanium--and said: "Me too boss, me too."
Just then Rosh walked in the door. "Sorry I'm late." I grabbed my coat and headed for the door. "That's Ok, you can drive. We're going to see a man about a slogan."
Rosh Singh comes from serious old money interests in Mumbai and volunteered to be a non-paid intern because he gets off on what we do. When his grandmother paid for our whole state of the art computer lab, the director had no problem with Rosh being a part of the team. I think he personally walked Rosh through agency training, although I don't think they will ever see a score as high as his on the written exam. I met him at a game developer's conference in San Francisco. They had a Beta test for Funcom's hot new game "The Secret World," in which secret societies, Templars, Illuminati and Dragons battle traditionally and within social networks. I was shocked to find someone was creeping up on my score.
When I met him, six four with a big smile and black hair in a ponytail, he was wearing a T-shirt that said: "Hold on, let me get to the save point." When I discovered his game name, someone who had been my nemesis all over the game nets, I was blown away. I'd gladly pay him if I had the budget but it would probably just insult him--he likes me being beholden to him.
We caught up with Paul Buchheit at the computer exhibit talking to the curator. I walked toward him and held up my identification. "Mr. Buchheit, my name is Oz Hamilton and this is Rosh Singh, we work with the Department of Homeland Security and we'd like to ask you a few questions." He smiled and said: "From what I hear the DHS is reluctant to admit that they even know you, but we've all heard of the 'ispooks' " He shook my hand warmly as the curator politely excused herself and left the room. "Do I need to be worried?" He asked. I returned his smile and said: "Not at all, we just need some background for a current investigation." I filled him in on the relevant parts and asked him: "Can you tell us a little about your recollection of how Google adopted the slogan and about the ones who had a more than ordinary interest in seeing it perpetuated?"
He adjusted his glasses and spoke softly. "I remember that user's trust was an important decision factor in those days. In general, we decided that anything that involves deceiving your users is likely to be evil. I think the most important effect of "Don't be evil" is that it gives everyone license to question decisions instead of simply following orders. I can't think of anyone who ever got very emotional about it, it was reflected in thousands of small decisions and debates rather than a few large, highly visible issues. Many of the people involved, like myself, have gone on to other enterprises and aren't as invested in what Google decides today. In fact, I can't think of anyone who would resort to violence over it."
"What about these spin-off enterprises--any of these think Google was using unfair business practices with them?" I asked. He hesitated and then replied. "Well the other effect of the motto, of course, is that Google is held to a higher standard now and I know a lot of companies feel the way about Google that others have felt about Microsoft. Still, I can't imagine a company resorting to violence because of it, the courts and financial penalties are much more effective." I changed the subject. "What do you know about Chatroulette?"
He relaxed visibly as I got away from Google. "I don't know a lot about it, but Georg, an assistant here from the Smithsonian is from Russia and has made them a side study." He motioned for a young man in a white lab coat to come over. "Georg, these are two of the ispooks we were talking about. They would like to know about Chatroulette. Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure, but I see the curator is needing my attention. Georg will fill you in." I said: "Thank you so much for your time Mr. Buchheit, you've been very helpful." He smiled and shook my hand again. "I'm sorry I couldn't come up with a name for you." And walked toward the curator.
.Georg put down his clipboard and said: "I wish I had thought of it first. Andrey is a gifted young man and his idea has mushroomed faster than any of us and I'm sure even Andrey himself, ever imagined. Along with that kind of growth comes problems. He has had difficulty controlling the content of his users. In fact, when Ashton Kurcher met him he told him in no uncertain terms he had to do something about the perverts because his daughter could see it. That's when he built in a three strikes and you are timed out rule." "How do you get a strike?" Rosh asked. "If someone complains that you are being offensive you get a strike, three of them and you are banned--at least for a while. He is also under a tremendous amount of pressure to sell out his interest, not only from companies like Facebook, but from some pretty powerful interests in Russia.
Representatives of Skype, Google and Google's Russian competitor Yandex are courting Ternovskiy, as is Moscow Web magnate Yuri Milner. Milner's company, Digital Sky Technologies, already has about 70% of Russia's 50 million internet clients using his e-mail or social networking sites.
He owns more than 5 percent of Facebook, which makes him the only major shareholder that isn't American. Milner wants to buy 10 percent of Chatroulette. He wants Ternovskiy to name his price but the teenager is stringing the entrepreneur along and that could be dangerous.
President Dmitry Medvedev is an avid internet user and blogger. He recently appointed Milner to a position on his commission to modernize the Russian economy, together with Mikhail Prokhorov, who is Russia's richest man according to Forbes.
Medvedev wants to break the American control of cyberspace. The combined value of Google, Microsoft and Facebook is three times the Russian economy's annual output. Russia is one of the fastest growing internet markets. I don't think President Medvedev is directly involved, but if someone is trying to keep Chatroulette in Russia and at the same time discredit Google, I would look very carefully at Moscow City." We thanked Georg for his help and then Rosh and I turned and left the building. Rosh asked: "Do you want me to look into the Russian connection and find out who is interested in buying Chatroulette?" I looked at him. "Do we have a choice?"
To be continued......
©Winsome Publishing 2011, All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Although I have relied on factual material in writing it, for liability purposes, please treat all dialogue and conclusions as literary musings. Inclusion of Google keywords as part of the plot of said fiction is blatantly intentional.
- What Happens in Russia, Stays in Russia--Murder by Chatroulette
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