Chapter 14 - April 4, 2003 PM - Episode 1Listen to podcast
“So how’d you get into the building security system?” Mark Cohen asks Dom Montain. They’re sitting in chairs across from each other at a small round table in Dom’s office at hackoff.com.
“What’re you talking about?” asks Dom.
“Look, I know there is a backdoor into the security system. Someone told me about it, okay? I understand—”
“Who told you?” asks Dom.
“I get to ask the questions,” says Mark. “I’m the detective. So I know there’s a backdoor. Alright?”
“I don’t know that anyone told you anything,” says Dom.
“You call a phone number. You enter a code. The surveillance doesn’t see you when you go through a door. Like the door to Larry’s office. The system doesn’t remember when you use your RFID card to get into the office or even the building. The surveillance camera in the elevator doesn’t even see you.”
“Okay, so you know about the system.”
“Look, you’ve got an alibi. Why aren’t you telling me the truth?”
“When did I lie to you?” asks Dom.
“You didn’t tell me about the backdoor. You weren’t going to tell me anything until I proved to you what I knew. That’s what guilty people do. You did have motive to kill the deceased.”
“I didn’t lie. The backdoor is a secret. You discovered it; that’s fair. But I didn’t have to tell you.”
“This isn’t a computer game,” says Mark. “It’s real. Look, Dom, you’re a smart guy. You know if surveillance is right and no one went into Larry’s office, then it has to be suicide. And you know, if there is a backdoor, then anything’s possible. Your failure to tell me about that could be construed as obstruction of justice.”
Dom says nothing.
Mark continues: “I also understand now why you were surprised when I asked you about being in the deceased’s office. You thought you had the backdoor activated. You didn’t think I’d see you. Why didn’t the backdoor work? Why were you recorded going in and out?”
“The simplest explanation,” says Dom after a brief pause, “is that I never activated the backdoor and—”
“Tilt,” says Mark. “If you didn’t activate the backdoor, you wouldn’t have been surprised that I knew you’d been in the office.”
“I told you I was surprised because it took you so long to do everything else like check email that I didn’t think you’d have seen the log yet. That’s all.”
“Are you going to answer my question?”
“Why didn’t the backdoor work?”
“Why do you think I know how the backdoor works?”
“Because,” says Mark leaning towards Dom, “it’s impossible that you don’t. You wrote it.” He leans back.
“How do you know that?” asks Dom, leaning forward in turn, then straightening as Mark takes his time in answering.
“There are actually two reasons,” the detective says at length. “They reinforce each other. For one thing, the hack is really good. It not only disables selective elements of hackoff’s security system — that would be fairly easy for an insider — but it also seems to disable parts of building security which I’m guessing are on a totally separate system.”
“They are separate. What’s the second reason?” asks Dom leaning in again.
Mark relaxes further back into his chair. “I can’t believe that anyone else would be able to hack into a system you were responsible for. Security is one of your systems. So my guess is that only you can get into it. That’s the stronger reason. Unless you’re telling me there’s a smarter hacker than you around here.”
“Not likely,” says Dom. “That’s why I’m CTO.”
“What about the deceased? He wrote ‘Gotcha’.”
“That’s why I’m the CTO.”
“Because the deceased wrote ‘Gotcha’?”
“Because I’m the better hacker; better programmer, too. Look, nothing wrong with that; I’m not the CEO type and he was … once was, anyway.”
“So, okay,” says Mark. “You’re the top hacker. You put the backdoor in the security system. How did you get into the building system, by the way?”
“It has an interface that lets us update its list of eligible RFIDs and get reports. Piece of cake to get full administrative rights, add some code. Almost too easy.”
“Did that worry you?” asks Mark. “If it’s hard to get in then fine, only you can get in. But if it’s easy, maybe anyone can and one line of your defense is down.”
“Right,” says Dom, “exactly what I thought. Good deduction. Once I got in I hardened up their defenses a little, did everybody a favor. Also made sure I get a notification if anyone tries to break in like I did or some other way. You’re right; it is our outer perimeter.”
“Anyone try to break in?”
“Sure; all the time. But that’s no big deal. Except for one, they were all amateur attacks. Probably didn’t even know what they were attacking.”
“And the one?”
“Nothing … just not so amateur. That’s all. Nothing.”
“When did this nothing happen?”
“I don’t know. Six months ago, something like that.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. Didn’t have to. If I hadn’t hardened the system, maybe they would’ve got in but I did, so no problem.”
“Why?” asks Mark.
“Why what? Why wasn’t it a problem?”
“Not what I’m asking,” Mark interrupts, pauses, resumes. “What I’m asking is. Why’d you put the backdoor in?”
“Claustrophobia,” says Dom.
“I don’t get it. Are you claustrophobic? Even if you are, why does that make you put a backdoor in a software system?”
“Used to be,” says Dom. He pauses and resumes. “I used to be physically claustrophobic. I’m not any more. But I still don’t like to be trapped. Maybe just my gamer mentality. Look, just because you put up a fire escape doesn’t mean you know there’s gonna be a fire. But you can’t wait until there’s a fire, then put up the fire escape. Right? I mean, you gotta do it in advance. So I can’t wait to build a backdoor until I know I need it. Probably too late then. I build it right away. Like a fire escape.”
“Ever have to use it?” asks Mark, holding eye contact after the question.
“I’m not asking about the fire escape. Have you ever had to use the backdoor.”
“I never had to use it.”
“You’re playing games with me,” says Mark. “I thought we understood each other. I didn’t ask you if you HAD to use it; I’m asking if you DID use it. Did you?”
“Well, you know, you build something, you have to test it. So, of course I did that. And if it’s built into something volatile, like someone else’s software, you gotta test it periodically — make sure it didn’t go away. So, yeah, I use it. But I never HAD to use it.”
“Why did you use it when you went into the deceased’s office the day before he died?”
“Didn’t say I did.”
“Dom, no games. I know you used it then. You know you did. It didn’t work and you were surprised when I knew you’d been in his office. Why did you use it? Why didn’t it work?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what? Why it broke or why you used it?”
”I-don’t-know.” Dom’s voice is becoming mechanical, losing overtones and normal cadence.
“Okay, look,” says Mark almost kindly, “clearly we have a problem here. It’s in your best interest to come clean about this. This is a murder investigation and you had motive and you could’ve gotten in around the time of death without leaving a trace…”
“I didn’t do it,” says Dom. “You already checked my alibi; I know you did. I wasn’t there and I can prove it.”
“A couple of bartenders with criminal records say they know where you were — that’s not very good proof. Or you could’ve hired someone; told him how to get in, or turned off security for him. I’m doing you a favor, telling you don’t think you’re in the clear; you’re not.”
“You-think-I-killed-Larry?” asks Dom in an even flatter and more mechanical voice.
“I didn’t say that,” says Mark firmly but quietly. “I said this is a bad time for you to start acting suspicious. I’m gonna do you more of a favor. I’m gonna ask you an easy question; let you relax; let you decide to answer my other question. Then I’m gonna ask the hard questions again.”
“Don’t use your talent for multiprocessing to think up a good lie to answer my questions with. That isn’t gonna work. Yeah, I saw you start to do that. Use the time to relax so you can tell me the truth. Now I’m gonna ask the easy question. How do you turn off the building security camera in the elevator? There’s a guy supposed to be watching those things. Doesn’t mean he watches all the time, but he’s supposed to. He’s gonna notice if suddenly one of the cameras goes black. Then you draw attention just at the wrong time. How’d you do it?”
“I gotta tell you all my secrets?” asks Dom, but he is smiling.
Dom explains: “You’re right: the camera can’t go dark. Can’t just freeze on the current frame either, because the camera pans. If it stops, it doesn’t look right. What happens is that, when the code is active for entrance to the building, a certain elevator is dispatched to the ground floor the first time it’s idle. I’m assuming that when it’s idle and hasn’t been called to a floor, it’s empty.
Anyway, that means some pictures are being generated of an empty elevator. Okay? Now we capture that sequence — exactly twenty-seven seconds for a complete sequence. Start inserting that as a loop instead of what the camera’s REALLY seeing. Still looks fine to the guy watching ... if he’s watching. Then I get in, says it’s me, testing, I get in and use my RFID to pick the floor. Now the software knows it’s me that got in and not someone else. So, once it lets me out at hackoff’s floor, it can let the real feed from the camera get through again.”
“Pretty smart,” says the detective. “I like the part about recording the loop right before you use it instead of using a prestored loop. I’m guessing that’s in case there is something strange about the elevator that day. A light bulb burnt out. Graffiti. It’s just been cleaned. Something like that.”
Dom is suddenly animated. “That’s right! That’s exactly right.”
“Why did you activate the backdoor when you went into Larry’s office the day he died?” Mark asks gently.
“I-didn’t-know what would happen,” says Dom very quietly and mechanically. “I-didn’t-know if he’d be there or not. I-told-you-that. If he wasn’t there, I didn’t want to leave him a message I’d been there.”
“That’s petty thin, Dom. You told me you got mad and went in to tell him he was a scumbag. I can buy that. But it doesn’t sound right that when you’re mad you stop to think that — just in case he isn’t there — you want to keep your visit secret. Because if he’s there, he KNOWS you came in.”
“Yeah, you are. And I think you’re playing games with me right now, Dom. I have something in my head that tells me when I’m being played with. And right now it’s giving me an alert. You sure you don’t want to tell me the truth now, make me less suspicious?”
“I-am-telling-you-the-truth.” Dom gets up, walks to the window, looks out, turns around, comes back and stands behind his chair.
Mark is silent but makes eye contact whenever Dom looks at him.
Dom quickly breaks eye contact.
“Give you another chance,” says Mark. “Why didn’t the backdoor work?”
“I think you’re protecting someone. Why would you protect someone? You’re in danger. You’re hurting yourself. No one is looking out for you. Who are you looking out for?”
Dom just shakes his head. He is still behind his chair, supporting himself on the back of it.