I’ve written more than a few blog posts and droll Facebook statuses. However something I’ve been meaning to do for ages is having a go at writing a piece of fiction. This is my first go at doing something substantial since school. Some of the phrases might not be familiar. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that they might not be suitable for children and discretion should be used if you decide to find out what they are.
3 am. The Cabinet Secretary appeared in the doorway looking like he’d just been woken from sleep himself.
“Prime Minister, I’m sorry to wake you but we need you urgently.”
“What is it?”
“You remember how your predecessor decided to ban encryption unless we could break into it?”
“Well, it turns out we weren’t the only ones who could break into it. A group of hackers has broken into the systems of the main banks. To prove they can do it they’ve replaced their logos with obscene pictures. The Barclays spread eagle has been replaced with another bird spreading her legs. RBS’s cross is now an up-kilt shot. HSBC seems to be something involving tentacles. “
“What about Lloyds?”
“Two horses in the process of creating a third.”
“Oh God. What do they want?”
“The horses? A foal of their own I think.”
“No, I mean the hackers.”
“We’re not completely sure. We’re not even entirely sure who they are. The Home Secretary and Chancellor are trying to find out.
“OK. Tell them I’ll meet them in COBRA in half an hour.”
“Ah. Unfortunately they’ve also hacked the lock on the door and we can’t get in. We’ve been advised to avoid it because we don’t know what else they’ve hacked in there.”
“We’ll need to meet somewhere else then. What about the basement of the MOD?”
“Also hacked. There’s a secure room in the old nuclear bunker at County Hall. We call it the Filing Cabinet after the planning department in Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“I thought that had been turned into a hotel.”
“Only part of it. Why do you think Mrs Thatcher was so desperate to get rid of Ken Livingstone?”
“Are you sure it hasn’t been hacked as well?”
“Yes. Everyone expects Whitehall and Westminster to be secure but no one expects to find us there. Not that they haven’t tried. There’s plenty of public buildings round there where people don’t ask too many questions if you look a bit lost trying to connect to public Wi-Fi.”
“OK. Get the team to meet there in half an hour.”
A short while later they meet up in the Filing Cabinet. It has the slightly stale feel of a room that doesn’t get used very often. The tables and chairs are obviously left over from the days when ILEA used to meet there. There’s a few old “Fares Fair” and “Make London Nuclear Free” posters lying around in forgotten corners. Altogether it has a bit of a feel of a 70s school staffroom. There are even a few ashtrays.
“This room is outside the jurisdiction of the normal smoking ban. Here the most senior person present decides whether you can smoke or not. Now you’re here Prime Minister, it’s your choice. There’s a kettle and a few tea and coffee things but we don’t have a lot of luxuries.”
“Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. We’ll see how it goes. How secure are we in here?”
“The room is in the old GLC nuclear bunker. We asked the developers to let us have it when they bought County Hall. We kept a stock of computers and phones from before the encryption ban. They’re not the latest ones but they’re secure and they work well enough. Unfortunately your predecessor was so obsessed with banning encryption that they weakened the systems in COBRA as well. That’s why we can’t get in there.”
“Thanks for that. Ladies and gents, if you can take your places around the table we’ll get down to business.”
The PM and CS sit next to each other at the head of the table. Around the table are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and the heads of the security services.
“I’ve been told that the main banks have been hacked into. I’d like to go round the table and each of you to give me a briefing of what you know, starting with you, Chancellor.”
“The new logos are the most obvious part. It’s not just on public facing bits like websites but also internal systems. Bank statement printing machines, branch terminals, cash machines, everywhere. They’ve provided enough information to show that they can access banking mainframes as well but they’ve left those alone so far.”
“That’s not good. Home Secretary, what do you know?”
“We’re still trying to find out who it is and what they want. Nothing yet though.”
“So far it doesn’t seem to be any of the usual suspects. Normally Russia or North Korea give some sort of clue that it’s them but not this time.”
“Nothing much to add at this stage.”
“Anything from the security services?”
“At GCHQ we’ve identified how they got in. They tricked bank staff into giving up their login details through a fake security check email and then installed some software to attack the network. It’s an old trick but it does work. It’s much easier since your predecessor insisted on a back door. Unfortunately we’re not the only ones with the key.”
“Damn! So what are we going to do?”
“We still don’t know who is behind it or what they want so there isn’t much we can do. They tried changing their logos back but there’s too many of them and they keep being reset.”
“We can’t just wait. Tomorrow someone’s going to check their bank balance and find out what Hentai is. And don’t get me started on TSB, the bank that likes to say Yiff!”
Suddenly the phone rings. The Cabinet Secretary answers.
“Prime Minister, it’s the Governor of the Bank of England on the line. The hackers tried breaking into their systems and he wants to give you an update.”
“OK, pass the phone over.”
“Good morning Prime Minister. I’ve got some more information on the attempted hack attempt. Our monitoring systems caught it while it was happening and the other banks confirmed that the same happened to them. It starts once a user enters their login details on a fake web page. They’re then asked to download and install a piece of software that claims to make sure their account still works but which actually kicks off the attack. The attackers have details of the back door that your predecessor introduced. The retail banks were forced to include it on their systems so it’s easy for this software to attack their network servers but we’re still using stronger encryption. Plus some of our processes are so old that we don’t use computers for them.”
“So how does the logo replacing work?”
“The software generates a summary of the logo called a hash. It then searches the network for graphics that match the hash and replaces them with an image of their choice. You should have seen what they tried to replace our logo with.”
“What was that?”
“An infamous image called goatse. If you don’t know what it is, let me tell you that you really don’t want to find out.”
“Do you have any idea who’s behind it all?”
“Our systems found a few attempts to connect to a couple of suspicious machines. We’re just investigating at the moment.”
“How long before you’ll find out?”
“Not very long. We’ll let you know as soon as we know.”
The PM puts the phone down and looks round the room. To try to do something useful the director of GCHQ puts the kettle on and passes round cups of nasty-tasting instant coffee.
“Remind me to at least get a brand of coffee that people have heard of when we next do an inventory of these rooms.”
Suddenly the phone rings again.
“No. You can call me Charles Montagu.”
The voice is heavily disguised and sounds like a slightly out of tune radio. It continues,
“It’s our group that’s been hacking the banks. To prove it, we’ll replace the Halifax logo with a still from Two Girls One Cup. Have a look at their website.”
“OK, OK. Who are you and what do you want?”
“Who we are is not important.”
“Are you from Anonymous?”
“Those people who think wearing a mask from a film makes them anarchists? Don’t make me laugh. Now listen carefully. This is what we want. First, reverse the ban on strong encryption and remove the back door that your predecessor introduced. Second, every politician or journalist who uses the phrase ‘won’t someone think of the children?’ to report to their local junior school, stand in a pillory and see what the children think of them while armed with rotten tomatoes. Third, any law that has been passed by a politician who revels in their ignorance on that matter or is there ‘to send a message’ to be repealed. How you do this is up to you but we’ll expect you do get this moving before the banks open for business in the morning.”
“We will not give in to blackmail.”
“Fair enough. However, if these things aren’t done, every credit card receipt will say ‘Don’t you think the Prime Minister looks tired?’ until they are.”
“Give me an hour and I’ll see what we can do.”
The phone cuts out.
“So what do we do then? Cabinet Secretary, help me out here.”
“There’s always part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act. You can suspend the encryption ban that way for 30 days and then pass a proper act to repeal it permanently.”
The director of GCHQ interrupts.
“Prime Minister, I must object. We need that legislation to stop terrorists.”
“What did you do before you had that legislation?”
“It was a lot of hard work. We had to investigate and go after suspects.”
“So why don’t you do that now?”
“This way is much easier.”
“And look at what wanting an easy life has done. Life isn’t easy. That’s why we pay you so much to do it. Do you want me to declassify your budget so people can see what you spend your money on?”
“Well be quiet then. I’m going to propose suspending the ban on encryption under part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act. Do I have a seconder? Thank you, Chancellor. All those in favour? And against? Carried by a vote of 6 to 3. The regulations should be published immediately. Can you arrange that, Cabinet Secretary?”
“Consider it done”
“We’ll make a list of legislation to be reviewed and arrangements made with pillory companies in the morning.”
The PM opens a red box and produces a bottle from a secret compartment inside.
“I think we’re going to need this. The Government Wine Cellar has emergency supplies in times of national peril. I don’t think there’s any glasses in here so we’ll have to make do with coffee cups.”
As they take a sip the phone rings again.
“Is that Charles Montagu?”
“Yes. So what are you doing then?
“The ban on strong encryption is suspended immediately. We’ll repeal it as soon as we can. We’re currently tracking down pillory suppliers and we’re going to review other laws.”
“Good. Remember, if this doesn’t get done, the two girls will reappear. We’re watching.”
“OK. One question: why do you want all this to be done?”
“We work in banking security and our ultimate responsibility is to our customers and shareholders. Part of our job is to keep out threats. Unfortunately the encryption ban means our own government is now our one of our enemies.”
“I knew it had to be an inside job! But why would you hack your own network?”
“People sometimes forget the importance of what we do and take us for granted. Sometimes you have to remind them.”
“Would you do it again?”
“That all depends on what you do. If you’re not going to work with us we’ll have to work against you. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of. Good night, Prime Minister.”