Richard Curtis had made it clear to Shawn that he was to stop using government resources to back-channel an investigation. So he stopped using government resources and went to a friend in the private sector. Jordan Keeler had spent thirty years in the NSA and CIA before starting a crypto consulting firm with international and government clients. Jordan's wife, Betty, had been best friends with his wife when they were younger and they had all spent a lot of time together on weekends and holidays. Jordan and Shawn hadn't stayed in touch since Shawn's wife passed away, but when Shawn called him, Jordan was happy to help. Typically, private sector cryptography was orders of magnitude less talented than what could be found in the NSA. The NSA had a long history of hiring the most talented and gifted minds in cryptography. But Jordan's firm was among the best and brightest non-government firms out there, scooping up a majority of NSA fallouts by paying them twice as much as the government did.
Jordan called Shawn and confirmed what Richard had told him about the NSA: Cryptobit's approach was as clever as they claimed it to be. Jordan's team was beta testing it with a barrage of attacks. They tried man-in-the-middle, hash collisions, and even brute force. Nothing seemed to work. Of course Jordan knew that the NSA had computers much more capable of cracking codes. But there was always a long backlog for using those supercomputers. There were far more requests for testing than processing power available to do them. So messages were prioritized in order of national security.
Jordan explained to Shawn how infuriating the sheer volume of fake messages was. On the one hand, it was a complete waste of computing power to generate and attempt to decrypt all these fake messages. It was like intentionally flooding the network with spam. There were ten and sometimes even a hundred times more fake messages being sent at any given time than real ones. But unlike spam, those messages never ended up in anyone's inbox since nobody could decrypt them. It was just background noise. It was like Bitcoin where in order to send even 0.00001 of a Bitcoin, you needed to download the entire history of every transaction ever sent. This seemed like a waste of disk, network and resources, but it was also exactly the reason that the distributed system worked: everyone using Bitcoin could verify everyone else's version of the truth.
The fake messages sent by Cryptobit meant that in order to spy on messages, the expensive backlogged NSA supercomputers would need to decrypt hundreds of fake messages just to find a single real one. It was still possible, but impractical and expensive.
Jordan explained to Shawn that the only way to really break Cryptobit's system was to inject spyware into the software itself, which could only be done by Cryptobit's programmers.
One step forward, two steps back, Shawn thought.
Shawn knew in his bones that something big was going on. Something bigger than the last attack. And he had a feeling that the coordination was, or would be happening on Cryptobit. He was like a hound dog who had found the scent, but was chained to the wall.
Shawn's phone rang again. He picked it up slowly.
"Hello, is this Shawn Douglas?"
"Yes," said Shawn in a puzzled voice.
"Mr. Douglas, the president of the United States is on the line. I'll put you through."
Shawn sat taller in his chair and adjusted himself.
"Shawn, how are you?"
"Mr. President, I am doing well. How are you?"
"Good. Shawn, listen, I only have thirty seconds. I know they've been keeping you in the dark about this investigation, but I clearly remember that you were the one who warned me about the attack long before it happened. You should be in charge of the entire thing, as far as I'm concerned. But there are politics involved and different organizations trying to take credit for solving this case—high profile and all. This kind of behavior is just ridiculous."
"I completely agree, Mr. President."
"I have heard you've been running your own investigation on the side. Don't be shocked by that. I hear everything, Shawn. I also happen to know that you've turned to the private sector to continue the investigation."
Shawn blushed. He had been extra cautious; how did the president know? He had kept it strictly between Jordan and himself. Not even Brandon knew about this move. Maybe someone on Jordan's team? Of course. Jordan hired a bunch of ex-government workers, and probably at least a few of them still had loyal ties.
"Yes, Mr. President. I have been tracking down some leads. I know that I was told—"
"Have you found anything yet?"
"Nothing concrete, but I have a strong feeling that another attack is imminent and I can only presume it's going to be bigger. I think they learned their lessons from the last attack."
"You were told to stop investigating."
"Yes, but with all due respect, sir, these guys ignored me last time. If they had just listened, we might have caught the bastards. Maybe. And now they're moving too slowly again. If there is a new attack—and I wish I didn't believe so surely that there will be—it'll probably happen before they figure out the difference between their head and their ass."
"Shawn, it's fine. You're not in trouble, not with me at least. I agree with you. And nobody is more personally invested in this than you. I pulled some strings to make sure you are brought back into the main investigation. They're moving too slowly for my taste too. Make sure we cross-check Mr. Keeler's information with the NSA and use him if we get into any legal grey areas. We need to get ahead of this at any cost. We cannot afford another attack. This country has not yet recovered from the first one."
Abigail, where did Abigail go?
"Thank you, Mr. President. I won't let you down."
"I know you won't. I have to go. Be safe."
YOU ARE READING
The Term Sheet | Wattys 2016 WinnerMystery / Thriller
2016 WATTY AWARD WINNER - HQ LOVE THE TERM SHEET is a fast-paced technothriller about entrepreneurship, startups, encryption, and the delicate balance between national security and individual privacy. Its complex characters explore thought-provoking...