Shortly before it’s takedown by the FBI and other agencies a small number of security researchers and law enforcement officials around the world had been noticing an unusual advert appearing intermittently in the services section of the Silk Road, the notorious criminal marketplace hidden deep within the Tor network. The advert was simple.
Reasonabl cost, bitcoin only
16 happy customer
contact #digital_sealion on IRC: lgttsalmpw3qo4no.onion
As it didn’t offer malware, credit card hash dumps, hard drugs, weapons or child pornography most researchers moved on to more tempting targets. Besides, it only appeared intermittently, a few days every month or two, so it wasn’t considered to be much of a threat to those who did bother to read it.
Violating any of the myriad of rules with which the minister ran his office was something none of his staff dared unless they were prepared to deal with the ire of his ever vigilant gatekeeper, Terri Campbell or the unbridled wrath of Edward Telford, the minister’s permanent undersecretary and attack dog.
For this reason, and this reason alone, the minister was rather surprised when Bryan Morton, his director of communications, and a man who was perhaps the most risk averse member of his staff paid no heed whatsoever to Terri Campbell’s effort to stop him as he rushed past her desk and burst into the minister’s officer without so much as knocking.
Even before Telford, who had been briefing the minister on a forthcoming meeting with the PM could utter a single word, Morton had slammed the door behind him and started pacing back and forth in front of the minister’s desk.
For his part the minister could only stare at Morton with an expression that quickly changed from utter shock to red-faced rage. ‘We’ve got a problem,’ Morton muttered as he spun about and retraced his steps without bothering to look up at either the Minister or Telford.
‘You’re bloody right we’ve got a problem,’ Telford growled. ‘To start with...’ Coming to a sudden stop, Morton ignored Telford as he took to staring at the Minister. ‘The Sun is about to go with a story that’s going to make what Anthony Weiner did look tame.’
The minister’s earlier anger turned to confusion. ‘Who the hell is Anthony Weiner?’ Setting aside his surprise over the minister’s inability to associate that name to the scandal that had put a quick and ignoble end to an otherwise promising political career, Telford glanced over at his political master. ‘He’s a former American congressman who was caught using a private Twitter account to solicit sex with women.’
When he saw the vacant look on the minister’s face, Morton assumed the man known to be something of a luddite had no idea what a Twitter account was. Ever eager to show off his expertise, Morton began to explain without bothering to wait for the minister to ask him. ‘It’s a microblogging service…’
He was cut short as the minister’s hand slapped hard on the desk. ‘I damn well know what Tweeter is,’ he snapped. ‘What’s that and this American got to do with me?’
Never having managed to develop the thick hide a member of the minister’s staff needed in order to withstand the scathing vitriol he famously unleashed on those who were foolish enough to raise his ire, Morton drew back. By the time he managed to mentally regroup, he found himself facing two men who looked as if they were on the verge of verbally skinning him alive.
‘I just got off the phone with a friend of mine over at the Sun,’ Morton began quickly before either man had a chance to shout him down. ‘He told me a journalist called Sue Oliver is working on a story that links the minister to a Twitter account used to post invitations to young girls.’
Frowning, and without taking the time to think the minister blurted out the first thing that popped in his head. ‘What kind of invitations?’
Shooting Telford a quick sideways glance, which was returned blandly, Morton hesitated, hoping as he did so the minister’s permanent undersecretary would inform his boss of the obvious. When he didn’t, the young techie drew in a deep breath. ‘Invitations to have sex with him, I mean you, minister.’
Dumbfounded, the minister blinked furiously as he gave his head a quick shake. ‘That’s preposterous!’
‘That’s what I said,’ Morton replied.
‘Did this friend of yours bother to tell you how Sue Oliver managed to find these Tweets?’ Telford asked as the Minister was recovering from Morton’s news.
‘There are no such Tweets?’ the minister snapped as he rounded on Telford.
Before responding, Telford took a moment to study the minister. Whereas, even as a politician, he liked to think of things in black and white Telford knew they lived in a world composed of various shades of grey, a world where even a politician who strove to be as pure as the driven snow all too often found the temptation to use less than honourable tactics to achieve their goals. Suspecting something was afoot, he turned his full attention back to Morton.
‘Get back in touch with this friend of yours and find out all you can about Sue Oliver’s sources and their reliability.’
Nodding, Morton looked over at the Minister, waiting to be dismissed.
Telford sighed. ‘Today Bryan, if you don’t mind,’ he muttered dismissively.
‘Oh yes, right.’ With that the harried young communications director spun about and beat a hasty retreat.
‘And you?’ the minister asked as he turned his attention to his principal advisor and a man he hoped would help him become the next PM.
Before answering Telford came to his feet. ‘While our eager young technocrat is running about, flapping his wings about like a headless chicken, I think it might be best if I kick over a few rocks and see what I can find out about this Twitter account Oliver claims you have.’
‘There is no such account,’ the minister snapped. ‘Anyone who says there is one is lying.’
Knowing it was an exercise in futility to argue with the minister, Telford excused himself. Making his way to his own office he retrieved the pay-as-you-go mobile he used when he needed to make his more discrete calls from the locked drawer of his desk, informed his secretary he’d be out for a while and headed for the door. Whereas Morton would go about making his inquires with all the finesse of a bull charging a red cape, the people Telford needed to chat to understood the need for discretion.
Despite having spent far too much of his youth wandering around the damp streets of Belfast with hair down to his collar, a Browning pistol down the back of his jeans and a barely passable Irish accent, Edward Telford had never before set foot across the very unobtrusive threshold of the Special Forces Club. An elderly but still very trim porter with startling sapphire eyes greeted him with careful courtesy at the door and enquired after his business.
‘I have a meeting with Andy Webb.’
‘Ahh, you’ve been expected sir. Please wait here.’ With a small smile, the porter vanished in search of Edward’s host.
Left with nothing better to do, Telford turned to his surroundings and started to investigate the black and white photos of SOE agents that lined the walls of the entrance hall. In pride of place a posed picture of a stunning young woman with dark hair and haunting eyes drew his attention. Beneath it a discreet brass plaque gave little more than the beauty’s name, Violette Szabo, and then two simple letters, GC.
‘I expect you know the story,’ a soft spoken voice just behind his shoulder called out, causing Telford to all but jump.
After managing to settle himself, Telford turned and offered his hand to his old friend, Andy Webb, a man who he remembered always had a knack for moving silently. Beyond a few more lines at the corners of his eyes and a touch of grey around the temples, Webb had changed little over the last 30 years Telford concluded as he reflected upon his own receding hairline and spreading paunch.
‘I’ve heard some of the stories concerning her,’ Telford admitted.
‘She put our little adventures firmly in the shade,’ Andy replied as he took a moment to glance at the photo with a sort of reverence Telford found vaguely disquieting. After a moment of silence Andy turned his full attention back on Telford, sporting a gentle smile that reminded Edward of some of the more ‘entertaining’ instances of their own distant shared past before he was gripped firmly by the arm and escorted into the bar.
Within a few minutes Andy Webb had them settled in a quiet corner under the stern gaze of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, each with a large whiskey in front of them before getting straight to the point.
‘So, whilst it’s always lovely to see you Edward, to what do I owe the honour of a senior Whitehall mandarin seeking me out?’
Telford toyed with his glass for a moment before posing his question. ‘I gather you’re now something of a specialist in cyber?’
Andy stared for a moment before bursting out laughing. ‘Cyber? Do you mean that the government is actually becoming interested enough to a find out what it really means rather than just trotting out the word cyber like some magic talisman with a budget attached?’
Telford failed to share Andy’s laughter. Instead, he paused uncomfortably, still staring into the depths of his glass. ‘My minister has a little problem we need some help with.’ He paused, struggling against the ingrained habits of years in protecting his minister’s secrets. ‘It’s of a personal nature.’
The look on his old friend’s face abruptly stilled the mirth that had been bubbling in Andy Webb’s eyes. ‘Tell me about it.’
For the next ten minutes Telford haltingly revealed everything he knew whilst Andy sat silent and still before him. At last he came to a shuddering halt and gulped down the rest of the fiery liquid he had been cradling throughout. ‘Is it feasible?’ He finally asked.
Unsure, Andy asked a question of his own. ‘That he did it?’
‘No! That he’s been set up.’
‘God yeah!’ Andy proclaimed rather more loudly than Telford cared for before launching into a description of the most likely attack vectors. It was only a few moments before he spotted the politely glazed expression in front of him. Pausing, tried to marshal his thoughts into non-technical language before starting again. When he saw that the glazed look remained he sighed as he gave up even trying.
‘I’m going to need all his home computers, laptops, tablets and personal phones. In fact, everything he touches that has a processor, every storage device, every login and every password for every account.’
Telford frowned. ‘He’s not going to like that.’
‘Got a better idea?’
Telford shoulder’s drooped. ‘I’ll persuade him.’
‘I also want a letter of authorisation,’ Andy added as his voice took on a more ominous tone.
‘Protection. People tend to get a bit twitchy about ministers’ computers. There’s the Computer Misuse Act, RIPA and a host of other bits of legislation that any god-fearing investigator can swiftly fall foul of, especially since Leveson. I’ll send you a draft for him to sign.’
By now Telford’s shoulders were slumped in utter defeat. Then, a thought occurred to him. ‘I don’t want anyone else to know what you’re up to.’
‘Sorry, mate. I’m going to need some help on this if you want it done right and you want it done fast,’ Andy snapped out even as he was holding his hand up to forestall the objection he saw forming on Telford’s lips. ‘You’ve no need to worry about Tommy. He’s cleared and I trust him.’
Realising he was in no position to object Telford conceded the point before moving onto his next concern. ‘How fast can you complete your investigation?’
‘Give me a week. Oh, yeah, and as to my fee, it’s 1100 a day each and a future favour when I need it. Do we have a deal?’
Telford sighed as he nodded reluctantly, too battered to even try to bicker over the day rate. ‘Seeing as I’ve little choice but to say yes, the least you can do is treat me to another whiskey, a rather large one this time, if you please.’
The next morning Terri Campbell was surprised to see the undersecretary heading down into the bowels of the department.
Edward Telford was not in the habit of visiting the offices of second tier staffers. Whenever he had the need to discuss something with them they trooped into his office like obedient schoolchildren summonsed by the headmaster. So when he nonchalantly wandered into the cubbyhole Bryan Morton thought of as an office, the young director of communications knew he was about to be treated to a right royal bollocking.
After closing the door and settling into the only other chair in Morton’s office, Telford fixed the nervous young man with a stare that would ordinarily have caused him to fidget. He didn’t, however, for he knew why the minister’s chief advisor was there and was more than prepared to stand up to him.
‘I’m not going to ask you why you chose to set up an interview for the Minister with the BBC without first going through me,’ Telford declared with a strained airiness.
Determined to defend his decision to talk the minister into launching a pre-emptive media strike, Morton drew himself up. ‘The minister happens to agree with me.’ Wisely the young man stopped short of adding, ‘for a change.’
‘Sue Oliver’s story isn’t a story, not yet at least,’ Telford countered. ‘Even if her editors do decide to run with it, it won’t be on the front page. Oliver is a hack. She’s the kind of journalist who make the paparazzi look good.’
‘While that may be true, if we don’t respond the opposition will pick up her story. When that happens, true or not, they’ll run with it.’
‘Respond is the operative word here,’ Telford growled in the menacing tone he used to cower errant staffers. ‘We respond with the full story, one that not only provides the public with the facts, but presents the minister as the victim of a vicious attack orchestrated by his political foes using a fraudulent web account.’
‘Is he an innocent victim?’ Morton asked rhetorically.
Rather than answering him, Telford came to his feet. ‘Call whoever it is you’re talking to at the BBC and cancel the interview.
While Oliver’s story might be printed in the Sun, I repeat, might be printed, you can rest assured an interview in which a minister claims he is the hapless victim of character assassination without a shred of evidence will be on the front page of every newspaper in the country.’ With that, Telford headed out of the room, stopping by his own office only long enough to let his secretary know he had some personal business he needed to attend to. He didn’t of course, at least not personal business that was his. Like so much else he did, the personal business he took care of was the minister’s. In this case, it was running the source of the Twitter account to ground.
When he was once more alone in his cubbyhole, Morton took to brooding. Convinced his was the only way to handle this problem, and determined to prove himself to the rest of the staff, as soon as he was sure Telford was gone, Morton called Jenny Jones’ production assistant at the BBC to confirm the time he needed to have the Minister at the studio for his interview. And rather than run the risk of being interrupted by Telford, Morton decided to wait until he was alone in the car with the Minister and heading over to the studio to go over the notes he was preparing for him.
On the other side of town Telford once again found himself clutching a large whiskey beneath the photo of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. Only this time Andy Webb had brought a colleague along. Where Andy Webb was slim and unprepossessing, his colleague looked like a cross between a New York fire hydrant and a British bulldog, creating something of an oxymoron to come to mind as the image of ‘Little and Large’ popped in his head.
‘Tommy, this is Edward. Edward, Tommy Tyler.’ Andy made the introductions as Telford cautiously offered his hand across the table, only to find it brutally gripped in a grubby paw and pumped with all the finesse of a jackhammer whilst Tommy’s mouth took off with equal speed.
‘Pleased to meet you Eddie. Andy said you're a mate.’ Then, without pausing Tommy pitched headlong into the issue at hand.
Well, it seems your man’s been well and truly stitched. At first sight he’s as guilty as sin.’
Whilst Telford was painfully aware that not everyone saw the need to gently open a difficult conversation as carefully as senior civil servants were wont to do, the speed of Tommy’s explosive verbal diarrhoea left him shell shocked as Tommy blithely ploughed ahead.
‘I did say at first sight. All I can say is thank god for backups. At least your man did something right. Anyway...’
At this point Andy placed a hand on his colleague’s arm in an effort to arrest Tommy’s runaway diatribe. ‘Edward, what we’re saying is that it’s as you suspected. The minister was very professionally set up, after which the bad guys did a wonderful job of making it appear that they had never been there.’
‘But how did you find out?’
At the question Tommy necked down the rest of his pint, set his glass aside and grinned. ‘Cos they’re not as good as me, that’s why,’ Tommy proclaimed proudly. ‘Like I said, thank god for backups ‘cos they’d pretty much left his laptop cleaner than a pig’s whistle, apart from all the dodgy accounts and photos of course.’
Sensing his colleague was about to launch into a deep technical description of his own cleverness Andy quickly caught his attention with a crisp £20 note and pointed him at the bar to get them all refills, hoping that whilst Tommy was away he could at least explain the basics to Telford.
Taking his cue, Tommy snatched up the note and left, allowing Andy to explain in a manner he hoped Telford would understand.
‘The minister backed up his computer occasionally and then thankfully disconnected the backup drive. As a result we were able to recreate previous states of his laptop and what we found wasn’t pretty. It all started with an innocent email from some local Mr Angry complaining about a planning application. Attached was a nice little pdf containing the local council minutes... and something nastier. Just to be thorough we tracked it back and Mr Angry does exist, but he never sent the email. He thought it was a bloody good idea though and we left him scouring the internet for the minister’s constituency email address. Anyway…’
‘Anyway he was well and truly rooted.’ Tommy proclaimed as he barged back into the conversation even as he dumped fresh drinks on the table. ‘Rooted, key logger, control of the camera, microphone, the bloody works.’ He declared with an almost childish relish.
‘The works?’ Telford asked as he turned to Andy for a translation.
Andy cleared his throat apologetically. ‘Let’s just say you might advise the minister not to sit in front of his laptop wearing nothing more than his underpants in future,’ even as he was tapped a bulging brown envelope on the table, now dampened by Tommy’s beer.
‘On second thoughts, maybe not.’ Telford paused as he struggled to get the image out of his mind and back to more pressing issues. ‘Who did it?’
‘No idea. Although..,’ Tommy continued as if a stray thought had suddenly occurred to him even as he was ignoring the not so gentle jabs of his boss under the table. ‘Has he been pissing off the Syrians?’
Telford in turn snorted with laughter. ‘Of course he’s not interested in the Syrians. He’s not FCO and the Syrians don't have any votes in his constituency. Why do you ask?’
‘The malware reported back to a C&C server in Cyprus that just may have links with SEA.’
Telford turned for a further translation to a decidedly uncomfortable looking Andy.
‘It looks like the attack was staged through Cyprus by someone with links to the Syrian Electronic Army. They’re a bunch of pro-Assad hackers.’
‘And you know that because?’ Telford and Andy both turned their attention back to a suddenly blushing Tommy.
‘I took a quick peek.’
‘I don’t want to hear this.’
‘He wasn’t the only one.’ Tommy offered as a peace offering unaware he was digging an even deeper hole.
‘I don’t care. What I care about is digging him out of this excrement and stopping it happening again in future.’
‘Oh that’s easy,’ Tommy sniffed dismissively. ‘Well, stopping it in future anyway. Patch regularly, get a decent anti-virus, don’t open unexpected docs or click on embedded links or don't use the same password for everything, just the usual stuff.’
‘He had anti-virus. I remember him bragging to everyone who would listen about how he downloaded it for free.’ Telford interjected.
Tommy snorted into his beer whilst even Andy couldn’t hide his grin. ‘You gets what you pays for Eddie,’ Tommy considered his opinion as he took a long pull on his pint.
‘But it was still supposed to protect him from viruses!’ Telford snapped.
Even as Tommy opened his mouth a sharp kick to his ankle put paid to whatever further opinion he had been about to air. Instead Andy posed Telford a question ignoring the reproachful look of his colleague.
‘Edward it’s like this. Think of the internet as a battlefield.’
Telford nodded cautiously.
‘Like any soldier who who’s switched on, it's a good idea to wear body armour when you’re about and about outside the wire. Right?’
‘That makes sense,’ he agreed.
‘As Tommy said, you get what you pay for, and even then,’ Andy concluded as a ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. ‘Even then, you still have to know when to duck,’ he quickly added before taking a sip of his drink.
For a long moment Telford considered this bit of military wisdom before returning once more to his goal. ‘I trust you have evidence to support all this.’
‘Will it stand up in court if necessary?’
‘We worked to legal forensic standards Edward. It’s bombproof, unlike the minister’s laptop.’
Early the next day, having pieced together the plan he would use to dispose of the problem that Sue Oliver’s story had created by relying on the same care and meticulous approach he had always employed in such instances, Telford settled into dealing with the next challenge he needed to deal with, facing the early morning traffic on the M4.
Ignoring the antics of the frustrated drivers around him, he once more went over just how things would play out.
Avoiding a scandal that would bring a promising political career to a screeching halt would all come down to a simple matter of timing and wording. With the information Andrew Webb had provided him Telford would be able to craft a statement he would have a friend of his release that did more than simply expose the fraud being used to sully the minister’s reputation. In addition, by using another agency to put the word out, one the public expected to deal with such crimes, the minister’s name would simply be one of many mentioned in it rather than being highlighted as a banner headline.
Though he expected the minister would be asked to comment on the sordid affair, Telford was confident even an idiot like Morton would be able to handle that. The man after all was supposed to be the director of communications, a charter he had thus far demonstrated little of the sort of adroitness Telford expected from members of the staff he oversaw.
Satisfied all was in order, Telford checked the time, rebuking himself when he saw he had missed the top of the hour news. Reaching out he switched on the radio with the volume well down and listened for a moment, just to be sure his teenaged daughter and her friends hadn’t fiddled with the stations the night before.
On hearing the voice of the BBC newsreader, Telford turned the volume back up and settled back to listen while he slogged his way into the heart of London along with the countless others who were inching their way along the motorway sporting expressions better suited to the cast of a zombie flick than the entrepreneurs, investment bankers, solicitors, office staff and government bureaucrats who ran the nation.
It took him several seconds before he realised what Jenny Jones, a political commentator and presenter for the BBC, was talking about. ‘I imagine when you are covering a story like this you must be careful, lest you do damage to the reputations of the people mentioned in a story, as well as your own.’
‘That’s right, Jenny,’ the woman being interviewed replied. ‘I am a firm believer in the need to get a story absolutely right rather than being first out of the blocks with it.’
Unable to help himself, Telford scoffed. ‘Bollocks!’
‘It was for that reason and the damage the minister’s reputation would suffer that I held back running with the story concerning the sexting messages he sent out to a number of young girls,’ the interviewee continued.
Two words, ‘minister’ and ‘sexting’, caused Telford to involuntarily lurch forward.
‘I wasn’t going to run with the story until I had an opportunity to chat with the two girls who claim they had received sextings from the Minister, a college student and a former campaign volunteer. Your interviewed the Minister in the last hour in which he attempted to deny he knew anything about the account ‘Minister-O-Luv’ left me little choice but to come forth with what I already know.’
‘Did these messages include photos?’
‘Yes, a number of them. Unfortunately none of them show the Minister’s face.’
‘Then how do you know it was the Minister?’
‘The background. One clearly shows the entrance to the Ministry along with its address and the other was actually taken inside his office. Unfortunately they are of such a nature that I cannot use them in my story.’
With nothing better to do as he waited for the traffic to move on, Keith Richards took to looking around. To his surprise the red faced middle age man in the Volvo estate next to him was furiously pounding on the steering wheel with both fists as he screamed at the radio. ‘While I don’t know what your destination is, mate,’ Richards muttered to himself, ‘I’m just glad I’ll not be there when you reach it.’
Before closing the door to the vacant cubbyhole that had been Bryan Morton’s office Terri Campbell took one last look around. There was no trace left of the eager young man that she could see, just as there would be no memory of him once a new minister had been appointed and he got around to hiring a new director of communications. With a sigh, Terri closed the door and headed back to her office.
Her quest to extract vengeance on the minister for taking what he considered to be a principled stand against nepotism had not factored in the sort of collateral damage that transpired in the wake of the scandal she had set in motion when she had hired Sealion. After years of government service Terri Campbell should have known that a self-assured young lad like Bryan would have jumped at this opportunity to demonstrate to the minister he was a key part of the team by doing something like he did.
‘Oh well,’ Terri muttered to herself as she entered the outer office leading to the minister’s and took a seat at her desk. ‘Maybe next time he’ll pay attention to his betters.’
‘What’s that you’re going on about?’ Telford asked as he was leaving the minister’s office with a crate in his hands.
After giving her head a shake, she looked over to where Telford was setting a box containing the last of the former minister’s personal items down. ‘That’s the last of it. Finished with young Morton’s office already?’
Terri dropped her chin a smidge as she looked up at Telford through her lashes while sporting a sly little smile. ‘The wee lamb wasn’t here long enough to accumulate the odds and sods the likes of you and I surround ourselves with. I dread the day I’ll have to clean out your desk.’
‘Oh, never fear dear girl,” Telford chuckled as he made his way over to the electric kettle Terri always kept warm and filled where he took to pouring himself a fresh cuppa. ‘I expect you and I will see many a sunset from the windows of our humble cells and a few more ministers passing through that door from before that day comes.’
‘I expect that’s what poor Bryan thought until the PM decided he had no wish to spend any political capital on our dear, late minister,’ Terri ventured unrepentantly.
‘The fool thought so too,’ Telford replied distractedly as he flopped down in a seat across the room from Terri’s desk. ‘You would think a man who is supposed to be as switched on as the minister would have known when it comes to a scandal like this, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can never put poor Humpty back together again no matter how hard they try.’
Taking up her own cup of tea to her lips, she used it to hide the grin that lit up her face. Perhaps the next minister will be astute enough to hire her son-in-law when she submits his name to fill Morton’s post. And if not, well… she’d have to look into mining litecoin.
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This story and all characters herein are protected by copyright laws of the United States and are the intellectual property of: HW Coyle of Functional Fiction, LLC and Jennifer Ellis.