Homunculus: Chapter 10: Alert

Douglas didn’t like the story that the filter logs were telling him. If he didn’t know any better, they might lead him to think that the entire Internet had it out for Medimetics. Hardly a second went by without something nefarious slamming against one of the firewalls. That wasn’t what was bothering him about it, however. Almost by definition, anything that the firewalls were catching was something that Douglas didn’t need to worry too much about. It was what might be slipping through undetected, or getting buried in the noise, where the trouble lay. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” was one of most idiotic sayings Douglas had ever heard. Ignoring something didn’t make it go away, so never being aware of something in the first place was even worse. It certainly can hurt you, Douglas knew. Whenever he heard someone use that saying, he’d counter with another little piece of folk wisdom, but one what was far more accurate: you never hear the one that gets you.

“Douglas?”

Douglas look up from his phone. He saw Liz sitting across the table, staring at him expectantly.

“Oh?” he said. He noticed the waiter standing beside them, notepad in hand, waiting with feigned patience. “Um, just water for me, thanks.” The waiter nodded and swiftly turned to walk away.

“You don’t mind if I have wine, do you?” Liz asked.

“No.” Douglas slid his phone back into his pocket.

“Oh, good. I didn’t know if you were maybe religious or a recovering alcoholic or something.”

“No. Not since I last checked, at least.” Did something about the way he had dressed that evening suggest ‘recovering alcoholic’ somehow? Douglas quickly dismissed the idea, if only because he couldn’t immediately think of what precisely that might entail. He could imagine what an alcoholic looked like pretty well, but a recovering one?

“OK then,” Liz said. Her eyes fell on the upturned wine glass in front of her. Did she feel self-conscious about being the only one drinking? Douglas guessed that he ought to change the subject.

“So,”, he started, “um, how have you been?”

“Pretty well this week,” she replied. “I’m this close to coming up with the campaign strategy for this big client. It’s the first time we’ve…”

Douglas’s phone vibrated and buzzed in his pocket, much as it had been for the past several hours. He took it out and checked the screen: another perimeter security alert from the firewall. He frowned slightly and returned the phone to his pocket.

“Something wrong?” Liz asked.

“No more so than usual,” Douglas answered. At least as long as he scoped the definition of ‘usual’ to be limited to the time since some idiot on cable news had tried stirring up controversy about Simulacrum. The first of many, Douglas worried.

“That bad?”

Douglas waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. You were saying?”

“Well, like I was saying, this’ll be the first time I’ll be integrating a promotional weblog as part of the product positioning strategy. It’s pretty exciting, actually; it’ll be a chance to cross-promote–”

“It’s not astroturfing, is it?” Douglas asked, a second before he realized that he probably shouldn’t be calling Liz’s professional activities into question on their first date.

“A what?” she asked.

“It’s, um, fake grassroots,” Douglas answered, trying to think of a save. “Like where a company tries to make it looks like there’s a lot of public interest or support in a product or something, but then a skeptic comes along and finds out all the blogs and websites are being run by the company selling the product. There’s inevitably a backlash against the company once they’re caught red-handed. I, uh, wouldn’t want something like that to happen to you.” That might work.

“Oh, no, not like that. That’s an amateur mistake. No, this is definitely going to be part of the client’s presence on the Internet, but with more in-depth postings and testimonials than we could get away with on a traditional corporate website. Of course, part of what I’ll be doing is keeping the two on-message and synergized with the more traditional thrust of the campaign.” Did she just use the word “synergize”?

“Then nothing to worry about in that case, I guess. You know, I’ve heard of… hang on a second,” Douglas said as his phone once more demanded his attention.

He checked the screen. Yet another alert about a possible horizontal scan against the network. They had become tiresome a few hours ago. Still, though, something didn’t look quite right about it. He flicked his thumb, switching the display from the current alert to a history of what happened recently. Scans were coming from multiple addresses but didn’t look like there was much overlap between them. Someone trying to hide their tracks. Slightly interesting, but hardly unusual. But that wasn’t it; he had seen that sort of thing enough even before Medimetics had drawn everyone’s attention for something like that to be sticking out at him for some reason. His gut was telling him something was unusual about this, but he couldn’t quite see….

“My eyes are up here, by the way,” Liz said.

“What? Oh, uh, sorry,” Douglas said, looking up from the screen.

“You know, you could at least flatter me and be staring at something else when I say that. What have you got that’s so interesting anyway?” She reached out towards Douglas and twisted his wrist so that the phone’s screen angled towards her.

“Hey, that’s–” Douglas protested.

“Relax, I just want to see what I’m competing against this evening. I didn’t think there was a game on tonight.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, pulling the phone free and shoving it back into his pocket.

“It’s not nothing. Don’t tell me you’ve secretly got some other date lined up this evening and are trying to keep her busy until you can ‘go to the bathroom’ and sneak off to see her. Because if it’s that, I can just go home and watch it on reruns.”

“It’s just… what?”

“Well, it’s the only conceivable reason for your behavior, if decades of sitcom plots are any guide.”

Liz was presumably joking, which meant she couldn’t be too upset with him yet. That was a good sign. Probably.

“It’s definitely not that.”

“Good, because no matter what the writers try to tell you, hilarity does not ensue. So what is going on?”

“My phone gets an alert every time it looks like someone’s attacking our network,” Douglas explained.

“And that happens once every few minutes?” Liz asked doubtfully.

“Of course not.”

“Then?”

“This is the Internet we’re talking about. You get attacked a few hundred times a second. On a good day.”

“And today?”

“Is not a good day.”

“No wonder you’re so distracted.”

Douglas shook his head. “It’s not like that. Most of it is garbage it’s not worth looking at. Script kiddies running some cool hacking tool that they have no clue how to use properly or what it actually does. Backscatter from slightly more competent kiddies who happen to be spoofing your address. Ten-year-old boxes that have never been patched spewing attack traffic that only worked when Clinton was in office. E-mails from Nigerian royalty or advertising dubious pharmaceuticals. But all that’s just part of the background noise.”

“So what are you worried about?”

“The stuff that isn’t that. Things that suggest that someone is trying to attack us, specifically. Or worse, that they have been attacking us for some time and haven’t noticed until now.”

“How hard is that?”

“Very. The idea is, once you let in all the good traffic and throw out all the obviously bad traffic, whatever’s left is interesting and is worth looking at. For some carefully defined value of ‘interesting’ that’s tricky to make a computer understand.”

“So every time your phone goes off and distracts you…”

“… is a time when something I’m supposed to look at happened. At least, something I used to think I wanted to look at. This rule set was working a lot better a week ago, I can tell you that much.”

“But now that your company’s all over the news, everyone’s suddenly interested in what you’re doing.”

“Pretty much. If it were up to me, I’d fire our PR and marketing departments and work in obscurity, not attracting anyone’s attention.”

Liz shook her head. “You wouldn’t want that.”

“It’d make my job a lot easier.”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Liz said. “No PR and no marketing means no one knows who you are. No one knowing who you are means no one buying your products and services. No customers means no sales. No sales mean no revenue. No revenue means no company. No company means no job.”

“You might have a point,” Douglas conceded. The fact that everyone seemed to be throwing garbage at his network just meant that his network had lots of valuable information in it that needed to be protected. And that meant job security. Until there was some high-profile security breach or the network went down for longer than management was willing to tolerate, and he got the boot, and had trouble finding new work thanks to that same high-profile failure. And if experience had taught him nothing else, it was that a defender’s failure was inevitable. It was just a matter of where, when, and how bad. For the defender to succeed, he had to stop every single attack that came at him. For him to lose, one attacker just needed to get lucky once. Statistics was not in his favor.

But neither was a steady stream of alert data that he simply didn’t have time to review. Douglas made a mental note to tweak the rules that triggered security alerts to make them less noisy. That would let him focus on what was important, at the cost of increasing the risk that the one that was going to get him in the end would sneak up unannounced. But what choice did he have?

“So,” he said. He once more removed the phone from his pocket and, holding it in front of him for Liz to see, powered it off. “Tonight you’ll have my undivided attention.”

“What about after tonight?” Liz asked.

“Thinking about that now would divide my attention.”


Chapter word count: 1,719 (+52)
Total word count: 17,560 / 50,000 (35.12%)

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