Borderline Schizophrenia

This is true. Hurd and Misha worked in the same office eight years ago. Misha saw Hurd—the first competent computer guy he ever knew—as someone he could call for technical help, for life. Hurd usually obliges because he is a gentleman. As Hurd described it, the situation sounded rare, like seeing a tapir in the wild, instead of at the zoo, or more likely, instead of on the plaque in front of the tapir pen where the tapir never seems to appear when you’re there, at the zoo, with the expectation of viewing a tapir or two. “Misha says his girlfriend is a super-hacker and has remotely cracked his computer and destroyed all his files. She’s controlling his computer. He needs help cleaning it up. Sounds like your sort of thing.” You mean ex-girlfriend, right? “He doesn’t seem to be very clear on that.” It did sound like a must-see. Fantastic stories like this are rare. You hope that they’re true, that you’ll be the one to lay your hands on a super-hacker and give John Markoff a run for his money, but usually, such stories come from people with so little computer knowledge you know they can’t be true. Blind men can’t look at constellations. Digital idjuts can’t troubleshoot computers. Given that Misha rarely connects to the Internet, the odds were even slimmer that someone had hacked into his toy, loaded it with spyware and screen-controlling applications, or opened up a port on his cable modem so that the machine could be controlled from afar. But I hoped: maybe, just maybe, someone had written and installed surreptitious scripts, maybe even got away with hiding a screen sharing application, and then wreaked a bit of havoc from afar, just to freak out Misha. Or annoy him. It would take a combination of knowledge, sneakery and chutzpah rare outside of bad television, but just maybe. Hurd wasn’t at his office when I arrived. Misha and I introduced ourselves to each other. He’s in his mid-thirties, thin, with what I think of as a European build: not necessarily physically fit, just lacking body fat. He looked like a creative type: non-descript but pricey clothes, a three-day salt-and-pepper stubble, expensive shoes, and a lot of electronic gadgets, like an expensive phone, his laptop and a lot of peripherals. “I broke up with my girlfriend last week. She’s very beautiful, but a crazy bitch. They had to put her in a hospital in Washington, in Washington State. She broke into all my stuff. She’s some kind of super-wizard. She got into it from her computer and put a virus all over it. She locked everything so I couldn’t get into it! I can’t get into any of the files. She’s crazy! I don’t know what she did, but it’s all fucked up. She’s controlling it. She’s like loading it from somewhere and doing shit. She got into the iDisk and partitioned it. She partitioned my drive so she could hide all my files.” He looked at his computer the whole time he spoke to me. The screen was blank. The computer was off. “Let me show you what it does.” He pushed aside his two cups of milk and half of a bagel and brought out what had once been a fine laptop, but was somewhat the worse for wear. It seemed to be coming apart at the seams, and it was covered in scratches, most notably around the recessed screw holes. Jelly was on a corner of the liquid crystal display, and a fine texture of scratches covered it. When he turned the unit on the screen showed two vertical white streaks. “See!” he said. “That wasn’t there before!” Most likely the ribbon which passed through the hinges from the base to the LCD screen was damaged. It could have been done on purpose, if the computer was thrown or dropped. The machine booted to an error message which said, “This version of the operating system can only be booted from the original installer disc.” First symptom: someone had copied the system folder from a system CD and tried to boot from that. He rebooted the machine. Same message. Once more. Same message. Why don’t I take a look at it? I said. It’s going to keep giving you that message. “Let me set this all up like we do at home.” He began fiddling with an assortment of cables and drives: a power supply for his laptop, a Firewire drive, its cables, a USB 2.0 drive without cables. He never seemed to get anything connected. He moved all the pieces around, plugged and unplugged them, and sorted, shuffled and rearranged. Hurd came in. “You really should move that milk away from the keyboards.” “Yeah,” I added, “let’s keep the liquids away from the electricity, shall we?” Misha absent-mindedly moved the cups away and continued fussing with his equipment. He kept picking up pieces and putting them down without ever leaving anything connected. He moved the computer back from the edge of the desk and rebooted it. Nothing new was connected to it; he didn’t do the keyboard command required to make it boot off of an external hard drive. Of course, it went to the same error message as before. “Look,” I said, “why don’t we skip this step? I’ll just take your word for it. There’s a lot I can look at. We’ll boot it from a CD, and then only an unwritable virgin system is loaded. If there’s any kind of mischief installed, or any kind of monkery, we’ll have it contained.” So that’s what we did. I booted it into open firmware, first, to reset the NVRAM to clean off any open firmware-based lock, just in case there was one. The computer booted from the system CD. There was nothing. There were files, of course, but nothing unusual, except that the hard drive was named “YOU FUCKING BITCH.” Misha said he did that. I looked for scripts, unusual applications, signs of tampering. “Misha, there’s a lot of crap everywhere, but there’s nothing illegitimate on this machine. Everything looks normal, except that you don’t have a bootable system on your internal hard drive.” “Ah, yes, I did that last week. I’ve been fooling with this for three months. I wiped the drive. I erased it. I’ve had all kinds of experts look at it. Spent thousands of dollars. Tekserve said there was nothing the matter with it, but my Windows friend said he could see how it could be done. My girlfriend’s a hacker. All kinds of crack stuff. I went to a hacker web site and it crashed my machine.” Why did you go to a hacker web site? “It was in her hyperlinks. I had to see what she did to my machine. There were all kinds of coded messages on the screen. Stuff that didn’t appear to be normal. Then I found that hacker link listed in her stuff and when I went there, I could see it deleting all my files.” Well, I don’t see it. It sounds like you might have just visited a prank site. It only looked like it was deleting files. There’s nothing weird here. There are a lot of disk images, but they all appear to have been downloaded, and they appear to contain common software. If you erased the drive, what are all these files? “It really happened! She did something to it! I wrote all the evidence here.” He pulled a crumpled stack of printer paper from his backpack. Written on it in brown marker were bits and parts of a dozen things you see on a computer screen every day, and a few error messages, the kind of messages you see when you muck about in the system’s bowels without having the slightest idea what you’re doing. It was no evidence at all. He was getting fidgety. He knocked over the cups of milk and just missed soaking three keyboards and another laptop. Hurd was fluttering nearby. Hurd and I were getting the same signals. It was a slow dawning. A creeping feeling. I pressed Misha for details. When did she move out? “Last week.” If she did all this from her computer, where is her computer? “At home.” She didn’t take it with her when she moved out? “No.” Can you bring it in? It’s broke. She threw it. “You could come and look at it.” Does it work? “No.” Then I probably couldn’t do much by looking at it, except for maybe loading the drive into another machine. “I have that drive here,” he said. He did. It was in a USB external drive case. But the power supply was missing, and he didn’t have the special USB 2.0 cable it required, and there didn’t seem to be one anywhere in the office. What did she do on it? “Hacking stuff. She broke into my computer.” Do you have any of her files copied from this drive? “Yes, they’re right here.” We pored through directories of her files looking for any hacking-related information: manuals, manifestos, cracks, illicit patches, any evidence that she even knew how to code or was anyway involved with the dark side, anything. There was nothing. Every time I opened a new document, he’d say, “Oh yeah, it’s that one.” But it wasn’t: they were mostly papers written for literature and psychology classes. Heigel and Eliot. “No, wait, it’s that one.” It wasn’t. Over and over. Innocuous papers written for school. A couple copies of her resume, showing a standard middle-class upbringing and listing rudimentary office skills. Maybe the resume was a plant, and she was hiding her elite hacking skills. What was the computer doing that made you first think it had a virus? “I could see all my files disappearing.” How were they disappearing? “I went to that web site and it said all my files were being deleted.” Which files were deleted? “I don’t know, they’re all missing.” Why do you think it’s a virus? “My windows friend said it could be a virus. He said it was an inverted T.” Misha, an inverted T is merely the type of keyboard. Are you sure he said it could be a virus? “Well, then he said it probably wasn’t.” What else did your Windows friend say when he looked at your machine? “At first he said it looked like she had vast skill, and then he said it didn’t look like she had any at all.” How’s that? “He said he didn’t see anything unusual on the drive. That’s what the guy at Tekserve said, too. I know it’s there. Maybe you should come over to my house. She like got into it through iDisk. She’s booting it from the iDisk and controlling it. I had my friend in Seattle log in to my iDisk, and I logged in. He said he couldn’t see any files. But when I searched the disk, I could see them. But I couldn’t get at them. She did something to them.” He had grown huffy and frustrated. He knew we were skeptical. He couldn’t offer any supporting information. Every piece of evidence he claimed to have wasn’t available. Every proof was somewhere else. I would have to see it for myself, he said, yet he couldn’t reproduce the circumstances, or produce evidence. He didn’t have the address of the hacking web site. He couldn’t remember which files were missing. He couldn’t remember the wording of the error messages. His written evidence was near-gibberish or easily explained. He couldn’t describe how, exactly, his computer was being controlled. He said he had wiped the computer, yet it was full of old documents. With every attempt to explain why the things he was claiming were unlikely—that she logged in remotely, was deleting his files, and was controlling his computer—he would change his claims. It was a virus. It was a web site. It was the iDisk. She was controlling the computer. The more possibilities we eliminated, the more his answers became vague, until in the end, he seemed to say nothing but “hacking and viruses.” Then he said, “It all started when I unplugged from the Airport and plugged into the Linksys. Then she could control me.” When did you do that? “This week.” But you didn’t have a bootable system. “I used the external drive.” But there’s nothing dangerous on that, either. “Look at this.” He showed me a RoadRunner installation disk. “It’s a bootleg. I know it. You should see the case it came in. And the “read me” file with it is all hacker talk. ” Where’s the case? “I left it at home.” The color registration of the bird on the compact disc was a little off. I popped the CD into my laptop, as close to a clean room as we were likely to get. The disk appeared perfectly normal. It was a standard RoadRunner install disk. The read me file was normal. There was nothing unusual about it. “Go into that folder.” Nothing. “No, I think it’s that one.” Nothing. Over and over, nothing. Misha put me in touch with his friend who worked in the information technology at a large university. He handed me his phone, but the battery was dying and I could hardly hear the guy on the other end, who was yelling to be heard, “Call me back later! I can’t talk right now!” On a desk phone, Misha called his friend in Washington, then walked away. “Umm, hi,” I said. “How familiar are you with Misha’s story?” “It’s weird. I don’t know what to think. If he had sent it to me weeks ago, he’d have it back and working by now.” “Did what he was saying make any sense to you?” I asked. “No, ha ha.” He laughed nervously. “He sounded like he was going crazy. Ha ha.” That’s what I was thinking. We hung up. Misha came back. I asked, Did you take this computer apart? “Yeah, three times. I thought there was a virus.” What would taking the computer apart do about a virus? He didn’t answer. I could see screws missing on the bottom of the case. The seams were out of alignment. “Misha, I’m going to install a bootable system on this internal drive. Whatever was wrong with this computer is gone now. Consider it a pristine system. Forget the girl, forget the whole mess, and move on. If you really want an overhaul, send it to your friend in Washington and have him do it.” He was muttering to himself. He knew we didn’t believe him. He packed his bags, thanked me, and Hurd escorted him to the elevator. Misha said on the way that he knew we thought he was crazy, but he wasn’t. It really happened. Maybe it really did happen. Maybe we were all duped. Maybe I missed something. Maybe the girl was really good at what she did: from her Windows laptop, she controlled his computer in such a way that when she left, she could cause him difficulty. But I doubt it. I think he’s nuts.

Posted May 13, 2003

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