ASCII by Jason Scott

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But It Is Obvious —

A basic concept worth mentioning, even if it means a text dump and some commentary.

So, the anthrax letters of 2001, the investigative team of which pursued one man, until he was found innocent. Remember that? After he was found innocent, the FBI pursued another individual, who during the investigation committed suicide. There’s an article from the New York Post, captured here, which contains, in the middle of its discussions, this set of paragraphs that really struck home with me and my historical work:

To convert the wet anthrax strain he had developed at Fort Detrick – the only strain he worked with – into dry anthrax, which can be inhaled and is much more lethal, Ivins would have had to use a lyophilizer, a freeze-drying machine that is able to dry large quantities of liquid. Ivins’ colleagues say they never saw the scientist working with dry spores – in fact, dry anthrax was not made at USAMRIID – until he was asked to examine the anthrax-laced letter sent to Daschle. The lyophilizer, located in a hallway surrounded by four labs, did not have a protective hood. A hood is necessary to circulate and filter air and make it possible to use the lyophilizer to work with harmful bacteria without the bacteria becoming airborne. Co-workers say the hoodless lyophilizer would have spewed poisonous aerosols, infecting co-workers. But no colleagues of Ivins experienced any symptoms.

Co-workers also point out that the machine would have to be fully decontaminated after use – a 24-hour process called paraformaldehyde decontamination that involves locking down the lab. Without a full decontamination, the machine would have contaminated other bacteria or liquids used on the machine at a later date. And if it had not been decontaminated, the FBI should have been able to find traces of the dry anthrax on the machine. Yet they swabbed Ivins’ machinery numerous times and were unable to find traces of dry anthrax spores in his lab, Kemp said.

Records show that Ivins logged an average of only two hours of overtime in the weeks leading up to the attacks – and even at those times, he could not have gone undetected. Even if Ivins did have access to a freeze-drying machine and a protective hood, sources who worked closely with Ivins estimate it would take a minimum of 40 days of continuous work without detection to create the volume of spores used in the attacks. “If he was working eight hours a day on spore prep every day, it would be noticed,” said Gerry Andrews, Ivins’ supervisor between 2000 and 2003. “It’s ridiculous.”

Ivins’ lab – just 200 square feet – was in “highly trafficked areas, and Bruce had colleagues that worked with him every day,” Andrews said.

OK, so why in the hell does this interest me or trigger any relevancy with my work?

Well, what we have here is a case of technical people discussing and defending known technological limits to an audience that could not care less and ahead of an organization who uses the generally non-known aspects of the technology as evidence, even in the face of inaccurately doing so.

When I researched the general history of the busts by Police, FBI and Secret Service of BBSes in the 1980s and 1990s, there’s a continued thematic use of this technique, of relying on lack of knowledge of technology to assume worst case scenarios and to apply superhuman or impossible talents to people for the sake of a gettable “win” in the courts. A conviction plea-bargained down to a lesser sentence is still a conviction, and so regardless of the people involved, the lives torn asunder, the “get” goes on the big board and the team moves onto the next kill.

What comes across to me in these paragraphs are scientists – people whose job is to work with specific applications and specific equipment – saying “this is how this equipment works, it isn’t even feasible for the equipment to work the way it is being described”. You know your car can drive at a certain speed. If you’re clocked by radar at a speed you are incapable of driving, say, 150 miles per hour, the natural defense is “the car can’t even DO that”. A more accurate assessment, though, is that your car can do that, given a number of factors which you would never think to do, like ignore the machine red-lining for 8 minutes as it slowly crawled past 120 miles per hour and ignoring the amount of straightaway you had to have to get to that point and assuming that you somehow developed superhuman ability to steer, well, yes, you might be able to hit 150. Imagine trying to explain that subtlety. Imagine trying to do it to a jury. Maybe you could do it, maybe you couldn’t. It would be tedious and expensive and the agency involved in putting you before that jury would have considered its job well done.

At one time in this country, when bulletin board systems were seized, the police or prosecutor’s office would set up the BBS and the seized equipment for photographers and news cameras – I once watched an 11o’clock news broadcast in which a collection of bulletin board systems, including the Private Sector BBS, were on tables with flashing lights and the newscaster describing the arresting of a computer “gang”. I remember this so clearly because the index cards on the machines were bulletin board systems I’d used. It was a very sad way to finally see these machines from the other side. But beyond that, they would show off this equipment, equipment like answering machines and telephones and describe them as computer crime tools. The inherent idea was that of a sinister form factor, a way that a machine “looked” that just told you it was for evil.

Few things make me angrier than the demonization and persecution of children. Children were put in this horrible position, of being described as evil creatures, utilizing tools not yet understood by the populace and now so commonplace that a crowded assembly devoid of a laptop is a strange situation. While I confess to little accurate knowledge of the description of the equipment by the scientists in the article, I can sympathize with the situation – how do you tell the readers of the New York Post that without a hood, a lyophilizer could not possibly perform the tasks ascribed to it by law enforcement? How do you portray the smallness of a lab and the requirements of dry spores of anthrax to be manufactured within it, without the audience shuddering at even discussing anthrax? How do you, yourself, not find yourself tarred with a brush of “evil” when you even show yourself capable of comprehending a substance’s deadly effects?

This situation for computers and hackers got scant better over time. It still flares up, even to this day. And I flare up with it.

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  1. Ansgar 'Aliyus' says:

    Wow. You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been waiting for those ideas to be put into words. Thank you.