Matryoshka

Tommy Mothersbaugh caught an anomaly. For the first time in over a year of scouring security logs, he found something that shouldn’t have been there. He took the report to his boss, Mary Jordan. He knocked on her open door.

“What’s up, Tommy?”

“I think I got something here, Mary. It’s not much, but it’s something.”

“Whatcha got?”

Tommy held out the report and pointed at a traffic flow. “That’s a printer in our Panguitch office. Trying to reach a TOR exit node.”

Mary lifted up her glasses to squint at the tiny print. “Huh. You sure about that? Double checked it and all?”

“Yes. Something’s up with that.”

Mary set the report on her keyboard. “OK if I keep this for my report?”

Tommy nodded. “Anything else you want me to do for follow-up?”

“No, no, that’s OK, we just file our reports and then things move upstairs… By the way, I wanted to ask you something and I’ve got a few minutes before my next meeting. You want to get the door and have a seat?”

Tommy shut the door and sat down.

Mary propped her glasses up, over her forehead. “How would you like to do a field assignment? You’ve been doing good work here in Analysis, so it’s only natural that you eventually sample other types of work… if you’d like to.”

“Sure, yeah. I mean, yes, that would really be cool.” Tommy’s surprise turned to excitement. “Where would I be going?”

“Well, wherever they send you. You’ll go through an orientation and then the officer in charge will let you know your assignment. But we can get you there as soon as you like. Tomorrow, even.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Dude. That would be awesome.” If Tommy was a puppy, his tail would be wagging wildly.

“Well, pack up your desk and make room for your successor.” Mary’s smile got Tommy to jump up, shake her hand, and then zip over to his desk with his good news.

A short, waited interval after Tommy left, Mary opened up SightsAndScenes.com and clicked the “helpful” button by Barry7711’s review of The Dinner Bell restaurant in Muleshoe, Texas.

Instantly, a minor official in another nation received an alert on his phone. The text on Gleb Ivanovich’s phone read, “Text ACCEPT to 495 697 03 49 to receive information on your prize!”

Any English-language text with the phone number for the Kremlin was serious news. Gleb brought up his browser and checked which review for The Dinner Bell got an additional like. Following the liked review back to that user’s home town indicated where operational cover had been blown. And that cover had been blown in… Panguitch, Utah? What and where is a Panguitch? Even after looking up information on the tiny town, Gleb couldn’t believe it existed. Why they had bothered to put a system there that we had bothered to compromise, Gleb did not know. He shook his head and sent a PDF brochure of Bryce Canyon National Park to another minor official.

Sofiya Olegovna glanced over the brochure in Gleb’s email and checked the traffic records for that system. After a few clicks and a few presses of Page Down, she had the data she needed to review. Hmmm… we haven’t done anything with that system in a long time, a long long time… and neither have they. Was this something some other guys were doing? Sofiya thought some more and became certain. This was definitely the doing of some other guys. Sofiya moved to make her report to those who needed to know.

Mere moments later, a spam campaign sent out 3.2 million messages proclaiming the virtues of all-natural Xenon Hexafluoride capsules. Most of the spams were either eliminated by filters or deleted by the fools still suffering without antispam measures. There were, however, 2 people who did not delete the spams, but, rather, accorded them the most urgent of responses. One of those people was in a very quiet office in a very quiet building in a very quiet part of Northern Virginia.

The TINCAN monitoring project was one of the most demanding of analytical jobs, but one that had also produced much valuable intel. Cracking the Spam Code was possible only because of the incredible attention to detail by the steganographers working for TINCAN, searching for meaning in the grainy background images of the spams sent by agents of the rival power. Of course, the meaning in the images was always encrypted, but the one-way pad in the hands of TINCAN’s director provided the key, every time. And now, the urgent response from the person in the very quiet office brought a collection of letters and numbers to the TINCAN director for his one-way pad to work its magic.

Director Andy Garfield ran the decryption protocol. He nodded and dismissed the urgent responder, then contacted his counterpart in Systems Monitoring via a scrambled line. Even if a rival power or those other guys had access to the phone system, they wouldn’t be able to break the encryption on the line. And, besides, what was so unusual about two intel directors talking with each other?

As it turned out, the rival power *did* have access to the phone lines. And, while it was true that the rival power could not decrypt the phone conversation, the rival power nevertheless deduced that this particular conversation fit a pattern that had gone along with its recent spam campaigns. Agents and administrators within the bowels of the rival power’s intelligence community put the wheels in motion to bring the spam campaigns to a close. One or two more actual messages would be leaked, and then disinformation until they didn’t believe us anymore. After that, the spam would have served its purpose.

Director Claus Niklaus of Systems Monitoring answered Director Andy Garfield’s call. “This is Niklaus.”

“Hello Niklaus. Garfield here. How ya doin’?”

“Doin’ fine, Andy, yourself?”

“Got my health. Can’t complain. This a good time?”

“Sure is. What’s eatin’ ya, succotash?”

“Well, Claus, it’s like this. You got a system in Panguitch that came up in analysis earlier today?”

“Yeah, just a while ago.”

“Well, I know all about it.”

“Ya don’t say… Huh. Thanks for the info, Andy.”

“Always a pleasure to help out, Claus. Hang in there, buddy.”

“Sure thing. Thanks a heap. See ya.”

“See ya.”

They both hung up and Claus leaned back in his chair. Only way Andy would have known that is if he’d intercepted and decoded a message from the rival power regarding the Panguitch system. Only way the rival power would know about that would be if they had a mole in his organization or a tap on his lines or a hack on his systems. Time to hire a rat-catcher, Claus figured.

The next problem Claus faced was that this wasn’t a direct operation of the rival power’s. Had it been, they wouldn’t have used the Spam Code that Andy’s TINCAN people were taking apart. That meant that the other guys were mixed up in this. The rat looked to the rival power for money and benefits, but the compromise on the Panguitch system could be laid at the doorstep of the other guys. Claus put in a call to Lauren Bishop, Director of Internal Investigations.

“Joyful Snow Pea Restaurant, can I help you?”

“Sorry, wrong number. I misdialed the third number.”

“OK, no problem, goodbye.”

Claus redialed, properly, and got Lauren on the phone and let her know about the mole, and how he may or may not be working for us or them, but definitely the other guys.

Meanwhile, the cashier at Joyful Snow Pea Restaurant knew exactly what to do, based upon Claus’ message. She placed an order for 2 dozen cans of Hunan-style water chestnuts to the trade attache at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. The trade attache, in turn, sent an email to Shandong Huaye Tungsten & Iridium Tech Co., Ltd., requesting a quote for 600kg of pure tungsten rods, 100mm diameter. That email kicked off an alert that went straight to the head of Bureau Nine of the Ministry of State Security.

He wasted no time in getting up and moving as fast as he could without running to his boss, hoping to get there before the head of Bureau 8. The head of Bureau 8 had an unfair advantage, as his office was 10 meters closer than his own.

The head of Bureau 9 sped past the door of Bureau 8. He smiled. Those speed-walking classes had paid off a great dividend. He entered his director’s office and did his heel-toe, heel-toe walk right past the secretary, into the director’s antechamber. He pressed a button and waited.

Still no sign of Bureau 8. The head of Bureau 9 smiled as he heard the buzzer indicating the director was ready to receive a visitor. He walked in, normally this time, and said only, “Panguitch cover blown.”

The director nodded and dismissed the head of Bureau 9. The head of Bureau 9 nodded and exited. In the antechamber, he saw the head of Bureau 8 cooling his heels. “No need to see the boss now, I got here first.”

“Damn. Just my luck, I was in the water closet when I got the info.”

“You know it is Bureau 9’s job to protect this ministry from infiltration by foreign agents. Why do you always meddle in our matters?”

“You know damn well it’s Bureau 8’s job to handle counterintelligence. We have to keep tabs on you guys in Bureau 9 when you step into our territory.”

“Is that what you will tell the senior director? That we are in your territory?”

“No, this is a small thing, not worth a fight… but what might be worth a fight is your bureau removing our microphones. Your department is not above suspicion of counterintelligence.”

“Well if you want your microphones back, give us back our cameras! We have to be certain that our counterintelligence team hasn’t been infiltrated by foreign agents!”

The head of Bureau 8 thought a bit. “Two microphones for one camera?”

The head of Bureau 9 nodded in agreement. “Send the draft proposal to me today, I’ll sign off on it.”

Both men returned to their respective departments. The head of Bureau 8 then reviewed the budget for next year’s office supplies. He circled the amount proposed for printer toner and noted it should be reduced.

Three days later, Tommy Mothersbaugh was just outside Panguitch Middle School in Panguitch, Utah, wearing a brown shirt with a printer vendor’s logo prominently embroidered above the left pocket. His instructions were to remove a printer from the faculty workroom and replace it with a similar model. He was then to deliver the removed printer to the e-waste center in Hurricane, but was to get there by way of Orderville and Zion National Park.

Tommy also had instructions to park at Zion National Park and to go see the sights for ten minutes, leaving his vehicle unlocked.

Tommy arrived at Zion and parked his car near a bunch of tour buses loaded with Chinese tourists. They all debouched from the buses around the same time he left his van. Tommy walked away, glancing back at the mob of Chinese tourists. He went to the main office, figuring he’d use the bathroom while he was there. After using the bathroom, he walked around in the gift shop and accidentally bumped into one of the tour bus drivers.

“Oh, sorry! Please excuse me.”

“Not a problem, no worrying.” Tommy was struck at the thickness of the driver’s Russian accent. Then again, lots of immigrants got jobs as drivers, such was the nature of things. Tommy never was sure about what things he should ask questions about and what things he should just let pass without comment, so he guessed this was no big deal and forgot about it.

Tommy returned to his van and checked the insides. Nothing was stolen, and the printer looked like it hadn’t been touched. Tommy shook his head at the instruction that made no sense and drove on to the e-waste disposal center. This field work was just as boring as analysis work, but at least he got to see some beautiful countryside on this mission.

Meanwhile, back on one of the tour buses, the Chinese tourists were talking animatedly about a small piece of electronic gear they had removed from the printer as the bus driver nonchalantly checked to make sure the bus security cameras were running properly.

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