A few weeks ago, someone using a computer in the Caribbean resort island Sint Martin, dug out a post from my website archive about the fight between the Phillipsburg, N.J. town council and the town library.
That prompted the thought about how sneaky (and/or) potentially corrupt the Internet can be.
And that thought prompted this exercise in quick fiction.
After struggling for years to develop an Internet niche as an investigator, Jack Digger hatched a block-buster blog that in a non-threatening, technologically simple manner advised the millions befuddled by basic computer commands how not to get scammed.
So he knew better than to open that email file.
He called the blog, “The first thing you’re never supposed to do on the Internet.”
That had become the phrase he repeated to his subscribers after they told him they had opened a suspicious file from an unknown sender and had to pay their way out of it, either in actual cash or for new software.
After a session with a client, he would ask himself this question: What are you hiding? You only pay when you get caught, and you only get caught when you’re fishing in the deep end without a clue.
Subscribers received his list of ten things never to do on the Internet. He advised them to print it out and tape it on the wall directly above their desk as a daily reminder. He actually thought they should tape it to their forehead so it would be the first thing they saw each morning, but he didn’t tell them that.
The address of this particular message seemed familiar, even if it did contain seventeen characters and a clearly random made-up name.
As had become his practice, he copied the address without opening the actual message and stored it in a separate file of offending internet codes.
“Look at that.”
No wonder it seemed familiar: He had already copied the same address into the file.
He searched his “deleted” folder and there it was — twice, once from two days before and again four days before that. Someone thinks they’re important.
Intrigued, he did the first thing you’re never supposed to do on the Internet and opened the file.
His computer screen did not explode with threatening messages.
The file contained a code for a photograph.
So he did the second thing you’re never supposed to do on the Internet and opened the photo file.
It displayed a scratched-up green metal door framed by red bricks.
Every place he lived had brick buildings and he was sure that more than one of them had green doors.
More deeply intrigued, and again breaking his own rules, he did the third thing you’re never supposed to do on the Internet and downloaded the file to his computer desktop.
The door in the photo didn’t seem to be as much scratched as attacked.
What had appeared in the miniature version as scrapes, in the enlargement were punctures, holes with torn edges, like knife wounds. Really big knife wounds. Somebody was angry.
He scrolled the photo up and down and side to side, even tipping his head at an angle as if that that would clarify the image. He laughed. “Dumb.”
He punched “Todd” on his phone and waited for an answer.
Todd Fleming was a high school friend and tech whiz who had set up his website.
“What did you open on your computer this time?” Todd asked, his voice both smarmy and disinterested. In Todd’s view the codes were never wrong, just the humans who tried to manipulate them; everyone but himself, of course. “And who do you need to pay a thousand bucks to so they’ll release your computer?”
“No one, this time,” Jack said.
Todd had extracted him from a couple ransomware attacks, so the question was legitimate.
“It’s this photo of a green door in a brick building I was sent. The door seems to have been attacked. It’s full of holes, and there seems to be lettering and maybe a number.”
“And you want to read the markings. This door is meaningful, how?”
Jack fluffed out a dismissive breath. “Someone sent the photo three times in a week like I’m supposed to know where it is.”
“Well, means something to them. I’ll dig around and see who sent it. Meanwhile, play with the contrast settings, the clarity, blow out the color and light factors to the extremes, both high and low, and maybe with the right combination of all that, you’ll learn what’s written on door number one. If that doesn’t work, for a few grand, I can sell you some software I developed for the government. You can determine what year the door was painted and whether the painter was right or left handed.
“Really?” Jack asked with rising concern.
“No, idiot. All it really does is syphon money from a bank account. Just like your website.”
Jack snapped back. “Hey, watch it. You’re well paid for maintaining that syphon.” Stunned and irritated: “Yeah, okay, never mind, but thanks. You don’t have to search for the sender. Not a big deal.”
“Hey, Jack, did you hear about Jenny Nelson?”
The name stuck in his ear. Jenny Nelson. Blonde, cheerleader, smart, probably went to MIT. Jack’s first high school crush. Didn’t end well.
He might have been interested, but the brief exchange with Todd soured his mood, and he became defensive.
“Don’t tell me. Blondie got picked to fly to Mars?”
“She’s dead, man. Just thought you’d like to know. You can be a real jerk at times, Jack. Forget about it. Gotta go.” He hung up.
Aw, Todd, Jack thought. “I’m sorry, okay?” he said to the empty room.
I’ll be sorry later, he thought. Time to go to work.
He opened his website and saw a dozen customers lined up with questions.
He laughed at question number one: “Should I open a photo file from an unknown sender?”