March 3, 2008

Seek and You Shall Find

The lawsuits of 2006 and 2007 had almost been a disaster. It had taken all the dancing skills of several grizzled civil servants at GS scales astronomically higher than usually seen to make the threat to the Project go away, and none of the team in the lab really wanted to know what had finally been done. They liked sleeping at night. But here and now, that wasn't an issue; the last line of code had been nailed into place, the last tap had been threaded, and the last bit of fiber had been hotspliced in an AT&T switching facility a week prior over in Salt Lake City where the Pacific Cross traffic came through. The Director was here in the PuzzleBox for the ceremony.

"Er, basically, sir, we're ready." The lead tech smoothed his T-shirt nervously. The Director looked at him for a few moments, causing him to search his conscience, but before he could blurt out the actual details of that last trip to Vegas, the Director nodded and turned away to corral the few brass who were lurking near the door. The tech sighed quietly and went to gather up his own team.

When all the VIPs had been settled in chairs near the main monitoring station, the tech went over to them. "Gentlemen, ladies, thanks for coming. I'm Park, project lead, and this is the first operational test of Project Syene. The filtergrids are coming online now, and we'll be ready to take traffic into the main array in about five minutes."

The Director coughed politely. "Park, could you give my colleagues a one or two sentence explanation of how Syene will help us avoid any, er, unpleasantness like the recent legal troubles we had with the program?"

"Sure, sir. Let's see. The problem, as it was phrased by others, was that we were retaining and interpreting traffic from and to non-target individuals as well as known targets in order to perform proper traffic analysis. We had to, in order to do datamining on the contact patterns, since we couldn't do that in realtime. The call content, as well, had to be analyzed after the fact, so we were - it was argued" - he added hastily, thinking of his audience - "we were retaining intelligence on civilians illegally. Anyway. The difference here is that Syene is doing live pattern recognition and traffic analysis without data retention; it is actively eliminating traffic which it recognizes as 'normal' for the U.S. telecommunications system from the 'net' before it even begins to analyze the take. Then, it is using spintronic and quantum systems to perform nonlinear pattern analysis of the call data in realtime-"

"Okay, son, I see eyes glazing. Cut to the chase, please."

"Sorry, sir. In essence, it means we never save any data until it has been flagged as anomalous; we don't need to save it in order to analyse it. The pattern data from the call is retained in quantum state without the actual call data being available, so that its character can be compared later without the actual call information being held without warrant. This is possible because Syene has been, in essence, listening to everything our telecom system 'says' for the past year or so and knows what 'normal' sounds like, and she can filter out nearly all of that by simply ignoring what sounds familiar. What's left over - well, that's suspicious."

"Thanks, Park. You can get on with it."

"Thanks, sir." Park adjusted his earset and checked in with his team. They were watching data spool through the grid at rates that would have looked horrific if he hadn't been watching what Syene could do for six months now. "All clear, guys?"

The responses came back; all okay. The machinery was fine; the code was stable, and wonder of wonders, the qubits were deigning to remain in semi-existence.

"Okay, let's go live. Shunt the feed onto the grid."

There was a wash of green across the status board as telecom feeds poured into the dataspace of the Syene comparators. The green threads blossomed on the display, indicating trunk routings, calls, port connections; just as quickly, they blinked and vanished, indicating that Syene had identified them as familiar and blanked them from the incoming traffic. A very few threads began to appear in yellow, then even fewer in red on the second board, indicating traffic that was surviving the winnowing and being flagged as anomalous.

Park talked to his team for a half an hour, then turned to the watching officials. "It looks good. We've positively identified over 60% of the redflagged traffic as being encrypted at 2k-spin or higher levels, and not by us; of the rest, some is in clear but involving obvious nonsense sentence structures, likely code. Some few have been tagged by human analysts as likely mentally disturbed people on the telephone, and the numbers marked for greenlisting."

"Impressive, son." The Director looked pleased. "Very good. We're going to go upstairs. I'd like reports every shift, please."

"Yessir."

* * *

It settled into a routine, punctuated only by the normal breaks of man-made machinery that broke or discovered new modes of operation that its designers hadn't intended. New procedures were hastily written up, new recovery processes devised, and the flood of chatter went on. The PuzzleBox hummed with the talking.

The next week, Park came in to see two threads on the status board that were purple. He frowned and called over the chief ontologist. "Hayward, what the hell are those?"

The other scratched his head. "We dunno. Syene tagged 'em. We've had a listen, and it sounds like some sort of analog encoding system, but it's not one we know."

"Unknown encoding systems should be red."

"Yeah, I know. We're confused too. But it's definitely an unknown encoding system. We're pretty sure that it's just because it's an analog signal mod as opposed to a digital hash that's making it purple. There's a couple of signal proc gurus beating on it in their spare time."

"Okay. Let me know if anything breaks."

"Sure."

* * *

Another week passed.

* * *

There were nine purple threads, now. Park had given in and reported them to the Director, who had become intensely interested in them and asked Park for a source. Park had demurred, since all they knew so far was that the calls contained undecipherable noises, which (as far as he was concerned) wasn't really a crime. But he did work at the NSA, and he passed on the phone numbers. Because he worked at the NSA, nobody told him anything about the result, but the purple threads continued to accumulate.

"I bet it's an own goal." The Syene team had started bandying hypotheses about the purple people eaters back and forth over lunch in the lab. So far, an own goal - detection of a friendly intelligence agent's communications - was on top of the betting pool by a comfortable margin.

Park shook his head. "Nah. It's analog, man."

The other tech retorted "Yeah, but we can't crack it. It's sweet. Why couldn't that be Upstairs?" (Upstairs being the active crypto division).

"Look, Upstairs wouldn't go analog. It's too kludgey for them. Besides, can you imagine a U.S. agent being told he's taking analog tech into the field?" There were titters around the break room table. "Yeah. They'd quit on the spot. If it doesn't look slicker than a fucking iPod, they won't have anything to do with it."

"So what do you think it is?"

Park finished his coffee. "I think it's a little guy who's got Ops over here who's been extremely clever with limited resources. Maybe it's a Shack Special." Shack Specials were another intel community in-joke, the crypto and communications version of a 'MacGyver' - a functional modern cryptodevice that could be put together with parts available at Radio Shack.

In the ensuing laughter, they drifted back to work.

* * *

By week three, there were twenty-eight threads on the board, and Park had gotten a little obsessive. He had taken to listening to samples of the traffic on his iPod when wandering the building (since it couldn't leave the SCF) and twice his team had had to hunt him down only to find him sitting meditatively on the john, three thousand dollar government issue noise-cancelling analysis headphones on his ears and his building pager screaming in his shirt pocket.

Finally, the Director called him Upstairs. He went, half guilty and half indignant.

"Come in, son."

"Sir."

"Have a seat."

Park sat.

"Fine job on Syene, first of all. Thing's working a treat. Very low false positive rate; much much lower than the old Echelon take."

"Thank you, sir. Sir-"

"I know. I want to talk to you about the purple threads."

Park stared at his boss's boss's boss's boss, trying not to look as defiant as he felt. "Sir, what the hell is going on?"

"You're right, by the way. They are traffic."

"Well, of course they are, or Syene wouldn't flag them, sir."

"Of course. D'you know what purple signifies?"

"Analog signal, sir."

"Heh. Nope. You should've checked the code."

"Sir?"

"The display routines weren't written in your department. You made an assumption, son. Bad habit for an analyst. Purple means unknown."

"Of course it's unknown-"

"You're not getting it. Start over."

Park stopped, looked at the Director, and tried to think harder. Unknown. Syene had been listening to the U.S. telecom system for a year. Before that, it had been fed every single specification, every single frequency, every single linguistic text, every single voice sample, and every single tonal sample that the NSA owned from all its years of intercepting voice and data traffic.

Unknown.

"Oh, shit."

The director grinned, unexpectedly. "See? They told me you were smart."

Park had paled. "You're telling me those signals are...are..."

"You can say it."

"...alien?"

"Give that boy a prize."

"But they're coming from our own telecom system!"

"So? So do the signals the Iranian agents send. So do the signals the fucking British agents send. They're illegal aliens too."

"But who are they? And who are they calling? But most of all, what are we going to do about it?"

"I'm glad you asked." The director reached behind his back and pulled a folder out of a stack of precariously balanced similar folders, placed it on the desk, and opened it. "Welcome to Project Simon Says." Posted by jbz at March 3, 2008 12:36 AM | TrackBack

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