Sunday in the Park
November 26, 2010
It is that strange intersection where art imitates life, life imitates art, art is acted out, life is lived, and all the lines are seriously blurred.
It started a few years ago when I attended an annual conference of thinky folks where strange and wonderful geeks, in their respective fields, spoke to a smallish group of about 300 people.
One of the speakers was a hacker named Paulo. (I wonder now if that was a pseudonym for Albert Gonzalez, but I am ahead of my story.) This guy talked about hacking into the Department of Defense and NASA and even the Secret Service. Now he had stepped away from the Dark Side and was working with the government and big business and protecting people from folks such as himself.
He asked if any of us had plugged into the hotel internet the evening before. This was three years ago, when wireless was much less available. We raised our hands almost to a person. He said that was a lousy idea, that hackers loved hotel systems. He picked a random person in the audience, we’ll call him Bob, and he showed us how Bob had gone online and done some personal banking the night before in the "safety" of his hotel room. He then pulled up all the guy’s personal banking accounts (with the key numbers blanked out) and showed us how he had drained Bob’s bank accounts. (He did return the funds after the ashen-faced Bob went online to confirm all his money had disappeared.) It was scary.
Paulo also explained a tool he had created that allowed him to walk up to folks carrying the (then) new chip embedded in their American Express cards and steal all the cardholders’ information while their wallets remained in their pockets. The guy was good. It was comforting to think he was now helping catch folks just like he used to be.
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In the New York Times Magazine just two weeks ago there was a page-turning story entitled "The Great Cyberheist," about one Albert Gonzalez who had double-crossed the government one too many times and had been sentenced for two concurrent 20-years terms in prison, the longest sentence ever given for a cyber crime. The story takes the reader all over the world, into chat rooms in Russia and a warehouse in New Jersey. There are deals and double-crosses and the exposure of most every major brand and retail giant as victims of cyber theft. It relates how, in his years working with the Secret Service, he would go out to small conferences of geeky people to explain his craft. And the article then showed how vulnerable our government is to a single, brilliant criminal mind.
A few weeks before that article came out, I had picked up a novel, at the gentle urging of one of the Wonder Women at Dolly’s Bookstore, to take on a trip. "Have you read any of Dan Chaon books?" I said no. "Then try this one. It is a page turner about identity theft and more." I was game. "Await Your Reply" is a National Book Award finalist with a fistful of glowing reviews from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and yes, The New York Times. I feared the book might be a bit overhyped. But once I started the mystery, I couldn’t put it down. I was grateful for the day of rain when I built a fire in the tiny corner fireplace and hunkered down with hot tea and store-bought brownies.
I traveled all over the world in search of a brilliant, possibly criminal, mind. I thought I understood characters and motivations and I predicted outcomes in my head and I was wrong, incredibly wrong, about all of them. Which pleased me. And when I reached the ending, I was breathless and the sun had come out and I walked along the river in Santa Fe and thought how those characters must be based on real people doing incredible, frightening criminal deeds.
And then I came home, loaned the book out and went back to my life.
Two weeks ago, when I read the piece in the Times, it was as if it was the outline for the book. The real life of Albert Gonzalez and his hidden identities and his relationships with cyber criminals all over the world made the lines between fact and fiction merge.
It reminded me of what a cop said years ago, at the funeral of another cop. "Lou joined law enforcement because he knew he was going to end up on one side of it or the other and he wanted to be on the right one."
What is it that makes us use our powers for good or evil? Where is that thin blue line? I don’t know, but I want to think about it more, maybe this very Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.