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 other people whispering about him in their groups that I saw him sitting in a corner. He wasn’t an imposing man, or even a good looking man. He wore impossibly thick glasses and old, rumpled clothes. 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 Ceo 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. This guy didn’t even seem to be 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, out of all the other techies, 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 an ever widening path. I hacked 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. 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 the activity, 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 server, 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 hackers 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 to my door.
At the end of the trail was an anonymous wave address. 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 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 tell me he knew I had found him, 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 travels, 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. He had chosen a hacker space, one with covered booths and consoles that were wiped after each use. 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. He was trim and handsome, young.
“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?”
“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. You’re familiar with the anonymous nature of a hacker’s existence, but you have no idea the secrecy I have to maintain in my own life. You see, I have watched the powerful and ingenious from my hiding place for several years, and the burden of hiding has become more than I can bear. I’m in no danger of being found out, but even I need to see 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, but mostly, I watch. I see the intricate flow of data that rounds the world each day. 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 of power in the beginning. When I was a child, 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 data, changed facts, manipulated data, 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.
“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 that 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 protected. 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 consequence.”
He was holding a 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 thought I would be able to do great good for the world with this. Perhaps I have, it has brought me great wealth and power, but 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 turn this sword to good. 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 held it. It wasn’t power that I felt, but responsibility and a burden of knowledge that wrapped itself around my mind. I looked up and found that the Netlord had left while I pondered the slip. The booth was empty again. I stood up, walked shakily out of the cafe, and onto the endless streets that reached every corner of the world.