I first saw the Netlord at a computer security conference. I didn’t notice him at all, at first. It was only after I heard people whispering about him that I saw him sitting in a corner. They huddled in groups, furtively looking at him and studiously looking at their feet whenever he raised his head. He wasn’t an imposing man, or even a good looking man. He sat alone on a long bench as far away from the entrance as possible. His head was bowed most of the time, his face obscured by a threadbare baseball cap. When he did look up, I could see that he wore impossibly thick glasses and had a ruddy face. His clothes were old and rumpled, a missing button on his shirt left a gap that showed through to a faded pattern on his tshirt. An oddity, even in a sea of odd people. He didn’t interact with any of the other people at the conference. He didn’t seem to welcome any conversations. The few people who came up to him were brusquely ignored and eventually wandered away. The people around me couldn’t stop speculating about him, though. “He’s the only hacker I’ve heard of that you should really fear.” “He can make you disappear off the net, destroy your life.” “Don’t make him angry.” “He took down the CIO of NetDyne.” “I heard that the NetDyne guy doesn’t even work in computers, anymore.”
To me, it all seemed like innuendo and gossip, how could one man be that powerful? He didn’t even acknowledge the presence of other people. I’d known other people who could make or break a career on the Net, but they were all executives and powerful people. People who demanded fear or worship. This guy didn’t even seem able to bring himself to talk to anyone. Even a basement hacker had more charisma than this slouch. I decided that I would try to find out why this man was so feared. I didn’t approach him like everyone else, it didn’t seem like I would get any further than the others who tried to talk to him. I began putting feelers out onto the Net that I knew he would find. Just little comments and tidbits that led back to me. It wasn’t a straight road, I made sure that he would have to track me down through a long and winding path. Despite my disdain for the hackers at the conference, their fear was infectious. Direct contact could bring a response I wasn’t prepared for. He was a dangerous man, I was sure of that. I’d seen what he had done to others. I began by hacking a database that I knew he monitored. I didn’t take anything, just inserted some clues that led him to another website. I encoded some more information at that site that led him to a server, then another site, then a database. Eventually the trail led to one of my own servers. The trail ended there, but I knew he would eventually find it. The absence of any other clues should tell him where and who I was.
I started to see some subtle signs that he had found my server. It wasn’t anything overt, just an update that applied more quickly than usual, some minor changes in my databases. He was looking me over, but I never was able to catch him doing it. Somehow, he seemed to have an ability to move in and out of systems without leaving any trace. Even when I was monitoring my systems closely, he could slip in, peruse the data, and slip away, leaving nothing but breadcrumbs that led nowhere. I left some bits of data lying around so he could find out more about me, but even that courtesy seemed unnecessary. Eventually, he began changing my files in small ways. It took me a long time to piece together what he was trying to tell me, but after sifting through just about every file on my computers, I pieced together an encrypted file. It was instructions about how to contact him. The path took me all over the world and into some of the seedier corners of the Net. Stealth hacker sites, anonymous clearing houses for stolen data, even a few government sites. It took me months to carefully pick my way through all the security and protection, but I managed to get through it all without being detected. Any one of the systems I bypassed could have brought a legion of netcops, or worse, to my door.
At the end of the trail was an anonymous email account. There was nothing about it that told me it was the Netlord except the difficulty I had getting to it. That was enough to convince me, and I sent him a timid wave introducing myself.
I waited nervously by my console for hours, but there was no response. I knew he had received my message because, well, there was nothing scientific to make me sure, just a feeling that I was being watched. It’s a strange thing to feel that someone is there with you, yet be alone. I knew I could hide myself from the most skilled hackers, but I also knew that my knowledge wouldn’t protect me from him. He was something different, almost magical. He was an anachronism, a magical being in a quantified world. I had never met the likes of him in all my work, and I hadn’t even met him, yet.
It was while I lay sleeping that he finally contacted me. I was awoken by my flickering consoles, which had turned on by themselves. Streams of data were coming in, but the core message was just coordinates and a time. I plotted the position to an anonymous netcafe that I knew. It was a small, dark bar that served caffeine and had a regular browsing parlor in front. Patrons came by Masstran, browsed the Net after work, and sipped stimulants. The back was different, though. Past a nondescript door behind the bar there were covered booths. The booths contained consoles that were wiped after each use and piggybacked their signals onto the legitimate business taking place in front. Hackers came into the cafe, whispered a code to the bartender, and took their keys to the back. It was a suitable place to meet an anonymous, nebulous creature. I arrived early and signed out a booth under an assumed name. I used one of the IDs that he knew, one that I had used to bypass security on the long trail. I sat in the double booth playing a game of sookotu. My mind wasn’t really on the game, and I got one disappointing score after another. It didn’t bother me much, as it might at another time. All I could think of was the man with the impossibly thick glasses and rumpled pants. One of the techs from the cafe suddenly opened the curtain and sat down opposite me. It surprised me greatly, the techs never interrupted the special patrons, their secrecy was guaranteed here. He was trim and handsome, young. Only his eyes conveyed any sense of age to me. He smiled widely, savoring my outrage at the intrusion.
“I’m sorry, I’ve signed this booth out for another hour, what’s the matter?”
“You have traveled a long way to see me, surely we can sit for a moment.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the man they call the Netlord. I dislike the name, it’s not really descriptive. A hacker ID should be descriptive, don’t you think? It sounds too much like a fictional character. It chafes me that I’m just a bogeyman to most people.”
“You?! I’ve seen the Netlord, and you look nothing like him.”
“That is an actor that I pay to make appearances for me. He is under strict instructions not to talk to anyone, just register with an ID that those who know will associate with me. It’s my attempt to diminish the legend, give myself some humanity in the eyes of others. You’re familiar with the nature of a hacker’s existence? How they manipulate from the shadows? How they carefully build their reputations, but remain hidden? I am as anonymous as possible, no one that I do not choose can find me. You have no idea the secrecy I have to maintain in my own life, the solitude that I have imposed on myself. You see, I have manipulated the powerful and ingenious from my hiding place for several years, and the burden of it has become more than I can bear. I’m in no danger of being found out, but even I need to connect with another person at the end.”
“The end? What do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s just an expression, the end of my limit, I suppose. I have great power over the Net, but it’s not a comfort to just watch or manipulate. I intercede sometimes, when I see something I can’t abide. Mostly, I watch. I see the intricate flow of data that courses around the world each day. I can press my finger upon that artery and feel its pulse, or squeeze it out of existence. I have a great capacity to do harm, punish the wicked, but little ability to empower the weak. I let you seek me out because I wish to change that.”
Punish the wicked. I had never really thought of the net as a battlefield or a stage to exhibit any morality. It simply was what it was. Hackers and businessmen intertwined every day, their purposes were almost indistinguishable from each other, sometimes.
“I never noticed the burden in the beginning. Before I had any true power, I would make comments on a site just to get a rise out of the poster. It didn’t have to have anything to do with the subject, it was enough for me to get an angry reaction. It was a feeling of power, I had control over the emotions of another, anonymous person. A simple comment that took me a moment to write could drive an innocent off the Net for days. I was the wolf among the sheep, capable of anything.
“You see, I am just another degree of what you see every day. I was just another hacker that a greedy person might hire or a business might contract for a job. I stole or manipulated data, changed facts, all in the name of ever shifting alliances. I didn’t fight for anyone, I was simply an ID that could change the fate of companies or governments for a fee. From my console, I influenced decisions all over the world. I could slip a bit of data into a senator’s file, and end a career. I could change some settings at a treatment plant and flood cities. It was all in the name of “security” or “protection”. Just labels that people used to give my actions some meaning to their own ambitions. There’s a secret that you only learn when you shake the pillars of power. Each time I brought a network to its knees, the weight I carried grew a tiny bit heavier.
“As I said, I didn’t notice the burden it conveyed on me each time I hurt another. They were just IDs on the console, after all. It wasn’t until the stakes were higher, and the power more acute, that I realized the little moral chips I left behind each time I ruined a life. That was when the Netlord found me. I still have trouble believing how it happened, even though I exercise that power everyday. He simply slipped into my network and destroyed everything I had so carefully crafted. It was just a key swipe from him, but a lifetime for me. I made it my mission to find this hacker and exact my revenge. It took me more than a year to find him. When I finally was able to put a physical address to his ID, I went and confronted him. Looking back, I think he wanted to be found. Your experience tracking me should convince you of the futility of finding an operator of this stature who wishes to remain anonymous. He wasn’t very impressive in person, just a slight, underwhelming wisp of a man. He welcomed me into his home as if he’d been expecting me much sooner.
“As we sat, he turned a small data slip over and over in his hand. After he had described my history to me as if he had lived it himself, he presented me with the slip. He said that it was unique in all the world, it was a power greater than knowledge or experience. It was a key that would unlock any door, overcome any security. This device, that seemed so ordinary, was indeed everything that the hacker described. I’ve tried to copy it, not so much in an effort to disseminate this power, but more, in a sense, to dilute it’s power. None of those efforts have ever succeeded. It’s so simple in appearance, but unbelievably complex in operation. When you scan the slip, there’s just a simple program in the directory. It becomes just more coded junk whenever I try to move it to another device, though. Something in this particular slip empowers the program, they cannot exist separately. It’s a talisman of power. Just having it allows me to access any information I wish without fear of being caught.”
He was gripping the data slip in his hands, now. His expression was a strange combination of awe and revulsion that seemed to pain him deeply. His voice cracked as he spoke again.
“I began with greed. All I saw in this was a means to make myself wealthy, and that I’ve done. After I had sated any man’s thirst for power and money, I looked for some other use for this… thing. I thought it would be easy to do great good for the world with this. Perhaps I have, but the consequences of each action is hard to predict, even long after it’s done. I find the cost has become too much for me to bear. I intend to give it to you, as it was given to me. The weight of this responsibility must change hands every now and then, or it will overwhelm the bearer. I know you will not discard or destroy it, it’s too great a power for that. Maybe you will be able to find some positive use for this. I have tried, but my imagination is not capable of finding a way to do anything but destroy. Every power is capable of both I think, the failing is in me.”
He handed the slip to me without flourish or pomp. It felt like any other data slip as I turned it over in my hand. I didn’t doubt that it was everything he described. It was just like any other slip I had used all my life, but this one somehow seemed different as I looked at it. It held my gaze like nothing I’d ever seen. I turned it over in my hand, mesmerized by the fine cracks in its finish. They flashed as they caught the dim light in the booth. I looked up and found that the Netlord had left while I was engrossed with the slip. I was alone again. I stood up, walked shakily out of the cafe, and onto the endless streets that reached every corner of the world.
The sun was setting as I walked down the street. It peered down the alleys and through the apartment windows, only resting on me for a moment at a time. I arrived back at my house and sat in front of my console. I inserted the slip into the data port. There was no noise or visible change. It wasn’t until I started browsing that I saw the difference. Each site I went to, whether it was a bank or a government agency, lay open before me. It was incredible. I saw secrets, hidden information, even things that had not seen the light of day for decades. I looked for some sign that I was detected, but there was nothing. I could truly go where I pleased, do what I wanted. The feeling of power overwhelmed me and I started to change instead of just watch. I began at the central banking computers. I transferred money into a grandmother’s account, shifted profits away from a hostile takeover into a charity account. It was so easy to do good, I scoffed at the Netlord and his timidity. His failing was just a lack of will, not a shortcoming of conscience.
It wasn’t until I returned to the bank’s site the next day that I found out how hard doing good can be. The netcops had closed the grandmother’s account and arrested her as a thief, the charity was being investigated for fraud. I could act with impunity, but the consequences of my actions were merely shifted to whomever I tried to help. I started to think that the Netlord had chosen poorly, I had the same failing of imagination he did. We both thought of the world in terms of technology. I put the slip away, resolving not to use it until I could find a way to control it. It was only a day or two before it crept back into my thoughts. Within a week, it haunted my every waking moment. I woke night after night, my head throbbing. The slip could not be ignored or hidden. It seemed like the further I pushed it away from me, the more it dominated my thoughts. I dreamed about destroying it, but the waking thought of crushing it under my heel was more than I could stomach.
Slowly, I realized the dilemma that the Netlord had given me. Every idea I had was dismissed with inquisitional swiftness. There was no way to help one person without hurting another. I could become rich at the expense of another, but I could already see why that had horrified the Netlord so much. This little slip, that felt so light, was already a burden to me. I could take from the rich, give to the poor, but anyone I helped would only be harmed. Who would I destroy in the end if I started down that path? Power in and of itself will turn on the bearer with redoubled ferocity, even if exercised with the most noble intentions.
I retreated into a ghostly existence. I watched traffic go by, trying not to judge any of it. The machinations and manipulations wore at me, though. I felt power, but not the courage to use it. Wandering from system to system, it all seemed the same to me. I watched networks where hackers slithered through them, corporations dominated them, moguls controlled them, and regular people used them. There were avenues for action, but all I could think of were the repercussions of touching those lives in any way.
I became restless just watching and began to take long walks. The streets were mostly empty of people. The few I saw looked different to me, now. They seemed lost and bereft, as if a vital crutch had been pulled out from under them. The rest were shuttered in their houses, engrossed with their consoles, games, and the rhythms of the Net. They feared the constant stream of information, but they feared missing some vital bit out of that avalanche more. So they fixed their eyes, propped them open, and stared at it helplessly. They were trapped by the power of information, just as I was. I didn’t have the luxury of telling myself I enjoyed it, though. The slip embodied power and helplessness, addiction and freedom, all in the simplest package. I wished I had never sought out the Netlord, maybe then I could have continued like before. The past is inviolate, though. Knowledge gained, even if it is forgotten, leaves a mark on the bearer, and changes them in ways that are hard to predict. I had wished for power, but now that I had it, it tasted sour and left me bitter.
I stopped in front of the anonymous hacker cafe. Somehow, my wandering had brought me back here. I went inside and sat at the bar. Just a quick caff-shot before I went back home. By the time I’d finished my first, I found myself watching the people as they came and went from the MassTran portal. They fascinated me, somehow. I’d never tried to understand the people behind all those IDs until the slip came to me. One person drew my attention again and again. She was old, too old to be here among the rest. She wasn’t hacking or browsing. She walked around the public part of the cafe, talking to customers. Most of them ignored her or angrily sent her on her way. Some responded to her, though, and she seemed to take great happiness from those exchanges. She lifted their heads from their consoles for a moment and smiled as they blinked the data out of their eyes. She laughed and teased them in a motherly way. Suddenly, they had a humanity, perhaps even a dignity, that they didn’t have online. I strained to hear what she was saying. She knew technology, the terms and stories that the users told her didn’t frighten or confuse her. She talked comfortably about security and even corrected some of their errors. She wasn’t concerned with the technology, though. She wanted to know each person, as a person, without the filter of the console and all the pretense it imparted to the rest of us. When they talked to her, they weren’t trying to be 10 centimeters taller, or 15 kilograms lighter. They were just people.
After a time, she became aware of me and the way I watched her. She smiled at me. I gestured her to follow and went towards the back of the cafe. She hesitated a moment before passing through the door. That short pause filled me with empathy for her. She knew what happened in the back, but eschewed the dark arts. She sought out the good in each person, not power over them. We sat in a booth for a moment without saying anything. I think she understood that something weighed heavily on me. She waited patiently for me to dredge it up. It took me a moment to control the turmoil and panic I felt as I confronted my intention.
“I am the Netlord, I have great power over the Net and the people who use it, but little power over my own failings. I have brought you here because I wish to change that.”
I placed the data slip on the table between us. I immediately felt lighter, as if I had dropped a great weight. My eyes watered as I described the power and responsibility that I was passing on to her. She listened to my entire story without saying a word. When I had finished, she came to my side of the booth and hugged me fiercely. We left hand in hand, only parting as we reached the front door of the cafe. I left her there and walked out onto the street. The sun was high in the sky, it didn’t filter through the apartments and alleys like it had before. It shone unabashed on my face. I walked home with a new confidence that I had found the right custodian for the data slip. I was human, again. It was only then that I felt like I deserved the title of Netlord.