16 September 2008

An Incredible Thread

A few weeks ago, I read Halting State by Charles Stross. WARNING: potential spoiler follows - It's a novel set in the future, about a bank robbery in a virtual world, said robbery having far-reaching implications for global cyberterrorisim, including compromise of Europe's root servers and digital certificates, handing control of the continent's core infrastructure (police, transport, banking, everything) to a gang of Chinese hackers who possibly think it's all just a game. The highlight is when Jack looks up to the virtual sky at a flock of virtual birds flying past and realises the bad guys are encoding messages in the detaild of their flight paths.

"The traffic looks like game-play to [...] NSA or whoever's sniffing packets; looking in-game for characters run by Abdullah and Salim holding private chat about blowing up the White House garden gnomes won't get you a handle on what's going on because they're not using the game as a lydic universe to chat in, they're using it as a transport layer! They're tunnelling TCP/IP over AD&D!" (p.299)

Oscar Wilde said "Life imitates Art". And today Wired.com describes US Congress and Pentagon fears of terrorists chatting in World of Warcraft to plot an ATTACK ON AMERICA OMG OMG GET THE DUCT TAPE HONEY WHERES MY .32??!!!1!!

A Credible Threat, in order to be useful to a scaremonger, must be easily understood by the population purportedly under attack. A heavy reliance on popolar stereotypes is customary, but by broadening the stereotype to encompass virtual reality, the threat authors postpone threat fatigue and get better ROI on their fiction investment. The problem with Stross's scenario is that it's far too technical. A politucian wouldn't have a clue how to explain it, while a smart terrorist (bad, bad guys) could do a lot worse, but the guy on the street has mostly figured out online chat.

Those bad, bad terrorists wouldn't even have to go as far as Strosss describes. Combine basic cryptography, steganography, and any of the myriad ways of communicating (internet or otherwise), and you can undetectably send any message you want while it looks like you're only sending a picture of the kids to their grandmother in a village in Saudi Arabia. Or tunnel encrypted instructions through common misppellings or bad grammar in bot-generated chat in any of a million online forums. Wake up, CIA, you can't detect this stuff! The only solution is too shut down the world's entire telecommunications infrastructure - but that would be bad for business.

Of course, the online subversion goes he other way, too. Did you know that the CIA runs Facebook? Its Hamming Distance from "FactBook" (as in "The World Factbook") is only 1, so it's much easier for CIA agents to tipe. I don't know whether other Facebook constpiracy theorists had spotted that. Did you spot it?

What is the Truth? Somewhere out there, someone is laughing their arse off. Is it the bad guys, or the badder guys?


  1. Hi Conan,

    You are good in english and there are a lot of typos in this post.

    Did you use steganography to hide some message here?

  2. Oh my goodness gracious, I would never admit to such a thing!


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