In late 2012, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment near downtown Buffalo. I had lost my job as a technician for a small company — they’re now defunct — but I had enough money saved up for about six months of rent and a little extra to pay the bills. (Buffalo rent is extraordinarily cheap.) It was around this time that a colleague introduced me to a program called TRAKT.
TRAKT is an all-in-one software that deals with security and penetrating frameworks, which is supposedly used by elite security and privacy firms around the world. I fooled around with TRAKT on my laptop and eventually got the hang of it. There’s a ton of great tutorials online, which I was a bit shocked at.
Using TRAKT became a habit of mine. I’d open it up, run some sequences and see if there were any new wifi hotspots in my area.
Here’s some of the closed networks that I used to see all the time.
It took me a couple of attempts and a constant reference to tutorials until I became fairly adept at poking into the encrypted signals.
It was around 2:30pm when I started up TRAKT to see what my neighbors were up to. I saw an unfamiliar signal pop up into the networks list.
Someone with a sense of humor, I guessed.
I decided to try my hand at entering this wifi signal.
I clicked on the name and typed the following:
goping –a –g 902.16.45.1 902.16.45.254>hosts.txt
~$mnap -p 902.xx.1xx
root@TK:~# apt-get install snoopy
snoopy-ng –bssid 00:09:B8:99:64:1E mon0
Then, the following commands appeared.
The usual stuff. I was about to type CONTINUE when something extremely bizarre happened.
My screen flickered on and off with a static image of an object over and over again. I tried to quit the program. I tried to force quit. The screen flickered on and off. Suddenly, after a switch to a greenish glitch, it stopped. The screen was blank. No commands were on the screen.
My heart was at my throat. Just what the fuck was going on? I remembered there were rumors spread around TRAKT message boards that there were bogey wifi signals set up by the NSA to catch hackers. Was I caught? I’m not even a hacker. I stared at the screen for a while and I tried to process what was going on. I tried to quit the application. It wouldn’t let me. I tried to shut the computer down. Nothing. What the fuck?! I typed the following into the terminal:
Nothing. Nothing happened.
Then, somehow, words began to appear in the terminal.
I jumped out of my seat. I felt myself filled with dread. My computer was hacked.
Holy. Shit. Someone’s been watching me. I got up from my chair and ran to where the router was and unplugged it. I ran back to my room to see if there was any more activity in the terminal. Nothing. I tried to turn my computer off by holding the power button, but the computer wouldn’t turn off. Exasperated, I finally took the battery out and the computer’s screen died. I put the battery back in and turned the computer on. It booted up fine, as if nothing happened. I quickly logged into Terminal and ran a check to see if anything had been altered. I started with the system files and worked my way out.
I was close to finishing when someone knocked on my door.
“Hey, Mike, why is the internet off?”
It was my housemate, Frank.
“Oh, shit, sorry dude,” I said. “I was just running some diagnostics.”
Frank crossed his arms.
“The next time you do that, can you give me a heads up?”
“Yeah, sorry, I’ll do that, my bad Frank.”
“Okay, dude, do what you gotta do.”
Frank walked back into his room and closed the door.
I leaned back on my chair and folded my arms. If the hacker was able to watch what I was doing, then that means…whoever this was knew what my housemates were doing too.
My phone vibrated on my table. It was a text message from blocked number.
I looked at my window. Was someone out there watching me? I walked over and peered out. A large tree blocked a majority of the view. The street was barely visible. There was no way someone could spy on me through this window. I shut my curtains and sat on my bed. The phone vibrated again.
WE’RE WATCHING YOU.
I felt myself trembling. I was afraid. Someone was toying with me and I felt vulnerable.
The phone vibrated again.
WE ONLY WANT YOU.
I felt strength leaving my body. Questions exploded into my head. Who is this? What did I get myself into? What is going on? Am I going to die?
Another text message.
MICHAEL, ANSWER US.
I stared at the screen.
Whoever it was wanted me to answer.
“Who are you?” I typed.
I intently looked at the screen. The phone vibrated and my heart leapt into my throat. I opened the text message.
What? “What are you talking about?” I typed.
CHECK YOUR BANK ACCOUNT.
I quickly logged into my bank account. I typed in my username. It came up as invalid.
I tried it three more times. My money. All my money was in there. The phone vibrated again.
WE HAVE YOUR MONEY. IT IS SAFE WITH US.
Who was this? What was going on? I was being watched by someone and they had taken all my money.
I dialed 911. The phone rang twice. A high-pitched voice answered.
“Hello, 911, what is your emergency?”
“Hi, my name is Michael and someone is…”
The operator cut me off. “We’ve been expecting you, Michael,” it said.
I quickly hung up and checked to see if I had dialed the right number. 911. It was right. Were they able to intercept my call?
My phone vibrated. It was a call from an unknown number. My thumb lingered above the Accept button, but I hit it and answered.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Michael,” a distorted voice answered. “We’ve been watching your activity for the past few months. We know you use TRAKT. We know you enter networks. We know you don’t do it to be malicious. We know you are unemployed. We know how much you have. We know where your family lives, what they do, where they work.”
“H-how do you know all of this?”
“We’ve been watching you.”
“Who are you? What do you want from me?”
“We’re only recruiters.”
“What do you mean?”
There was a slight pause.
“We only…observe. We won’t say anything else over the phone. Come meet us tonight.”
“N-no, I don’t want to. You guys stole money out of my account and you said you’ve deleted my identity. Why – how can I trust you?”
“You’ve no one else.”
“What about my family?”
“Don’t worry, we won’t touch them. We only want you.”
I felt tears form from frustration and fear.
“But, but…what about my life?”
“We’re making you a new one.”
“What?” I cried out. “What the fuck are you guys doing? Are you fucking around with me?”
Anger replaced my fear. I wanted to live my life. I didn’t want my life to be erased, only to have a new one created by this…entity. No one was going to take my life away from me.
“Who are you guys, tell me right now. I’m sick of this shit,” I said.
“We told you, we’re only recruiters. Come meet us at Delaware Park. Nine o’clock. We’ll be waiting,” the voice said and the connection died.
“You motherfucking sons-of-bitches,” I shouted.
Frank knocked on the door.
“Dude, can you keep it down?” he said.
I glared at him and gave him the finger.
“Fuck you, too,” he said and walked back to his room.
I looked at the clock. It was 8:20. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt scared. I was scared like I’d never been before. It was pure terror. The life I had was going to be no more and I had no choice. I decided to call my parents. When I pressed call, I received an automated message. “I’m sorry, the number you have dialed is no longer in service…” I couldn’t believe it. Their phone numbers had been changed. How was this possible? Was this happening to me right now? Why was this happening to me? I tried calling my sister. It was the same result. I’m fucked, I thought. I’m so totally fucked.
My nose was running and I couldn’t feel my toes when I got to Delaware Park. On the way over, I passed people bundled up in their winter parkas and scarves and gloves. Their winter boots left deep marks in the snow. I was ill-prepared for this night. My canvas shoes and my thin coat didn’t keep me very warm.
I walked along the north end of the pond, where the Scajaquada ran parallel to the trail. I walked past the steep hill where I had crashed a couple of summers before. A light post dimly illuminated the snowy path. I saw, beyond the path, two men, dressed in dark clothing, sitting on a bench, watching the calm, winter water. I tensed up. I slowly walked closer to them. I was within 30 feet of them when they suddenly stood up and turned in my direction.
“Right on time,” the man on the right said.
They walked towards me. Both had their faces covered with a half-face mask. Neither of them made eye contact with me. I followed them. We were all silent throughout the walk.
We left the park and stood outside the Albright Knox.
“Our ride should be here soon,” a voice said. I recognized it as the voice from before.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Who are you guys?”
They were silent.
“Fucking answer me!”
Screaming at them was the wrong thing to do. One punched me square in the jaw and the other took my legs out. I fell on to the snowy pavement, hard.
“Shut the fuck up,” one of them said and picked me up.
“There’s our ride. Two minutes late,” it said.
The car rolled to a stop in front of us and one of the men quickly opened the rear door. The other man shoved me inside and they got in.
“You must be cold,” a man in the front passenger seat said.
The pain in my jaw stopped me from answering him.
“We’re recruiters,” he said. “We’ve done research on you, Michael. You’re a perfect fit. Unemployed, living far away from relatives. No criminal history. No significant other in your life. A roommate who expects you to skip out on rent and leave town.” He looked at me through the rearview mirror. His blue eyes searched for a response from me.
“When’s the last time you actually talked to your family?” he asked.
It had been a little over five months since I talked to them over the phone.
“Yesterday,” I said, through gritted teeth.
“Stop lying,” he said. “We know. We’ve done research on you, Michael.”
“Then why did you ask me?”
I leaned back into the seat.
“You’re a wannabe hacker, is that it?” he asked.
“I’m not a hacker at all. I don’t know how to hack. I don’t know what this is. I don’t know why you guys are kidnapping me. I’m not rich. I don’t have anything to offer you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
I looked into the mirror. I met his gaze.
“You picked up TRAKT in a matter of days. That’s quite impressive, especially for…a civilian.”
My ears perked up. Civilian? “Are you telling me that…you guys are military?”
The man laughed. “Oh no, military? No, we’re not. We’re in the private sector. And we want you to join our group.”
CoBALT. I read about this organization before. They promote themselves as internet security watchdogs and some people had even said that they watch every move the government makes.
“What is your answer?”
The car came to a stop.
I looked outside. It was a large grey, windowless compound.
I had no choice.
The car doors opened. A hand grabbed my shoulder.
“Welcome home,” the man said.
END OF PART 1
We are watching you.