Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Entry in Schneier's Eighth Movie-Plot Threat Contest

Every year, on April Fool's Day, Bruce Schneier hosts a "movie plot threat" contest on his blog.  This year's theme is "evils of encryption".  This is my third year submitting an entry (I won two years ago -- w00t!).  Here is my entry for the 8th contest (500 word limit):

Ring of Gyges

A new smart phone — the “Bright Red Phone”— is issued to all national/homeland security forces. For years cyber criminals and nation states have been able to hack the communications of security forces. “Bright Red Phone” is supposed to win the arms race.

It’s not rocket science, just a clever combination of existing technologies. The key is the “Gyges Chip” in each phone. It does audio speech recognition-to-encrypted text on chip, and the reverse. It also does face recognition-to-encrypted-avatar-animation on chip, and the reverse. What users hear are synthesized voices and what they see are animated avatars. Nothing unencrypted is buffered or stored on the phone. It uses one-time symmetric key encryption where the secret keys are “hidden” in plain sight among the public keys in the PKI. This makes it appear that they use public key encryption -- maybe side-tracking attackers.

A few younger members of the Capital Police -- low on the totem pole and gamerz/h4ck3rs from way back – decide to phreak the system. Instead of using their real voice and real face to train the Bright Red Phone during setup, they “sock puppet” with video and recordings of their un-favorite politicians, including POTUS. It starts as a joke, but ramps up when they find that the Official Monitoring System doesn’t flag a fake setup as fake. This gives them a “cloak of invisibility” of sorts. The pranks escalate from lulz to “chaotic good” actions against “evil doers” among the political class. It doesn’t take long before some of the victims – anti-Federal politicians – to find out about the Bright Red Phone and it’s cloaking capability. They want some new weapons in their fight against “Executive Tyranny”, as they call it. They use their official clout to get some of their “pals” hired as Capital Police. As former mercenary contractors, they set up their Bright Red Phones for maximum phreak potential: go anywhere, do anything, and nobody knows who you really are.

Then comes another “constitutional crisis”. The anti-Feds decide to stop this “tyranny” at all costs. Several “pals” were instructed to get into the White House for “maximum intel”. “Stop him if he’s close to pulling the trigger”. They get inside with laughable ease. They are giddy. One -- nicknamed “Glow Kone” thanks to his shaved head that’s orange-ish from too much “tan in a can” -- decides to “mess with the Prez” with a “your daughters have been kidnapped” prank stolen from the “West Wing” TV series. The prank goes wrong and POTUS ends up unprotected in a gun-toting anti-Fed mob. Shots ring out and the President falls dead.

Meanwhile, the First Lady gets a message from an aide that the President is actually back in the White House, wounded but not seriously. She rushes upstairs to the residence toward the Master Bedroom. Once inside, the door closes behind her and the lock clicks. It’s Glow Kone. Smiling, he plans to get his groove on, Presidential style. Who will ever know?
Many of you will recognize the "Invisible Man" theme and plot structure.  The title refers to the earliest recorded version of that story -- "The Ring of Gyges" story featured in Plato's Republic and Meno.  The character name "Glow Kone" is a variation of "Glaucon", the character in Republic who tells the story.  Many villains in fiction have some freakishness about their appearance, and I thought the "tan in a can" look was a good element of freakishness.  (Of course, any resemblance with real people is purely accidental.)  In the original story of The Ring of Gyges, the protagonist kills the king and beds the queen. I decided to imitate this in my plot.  Doesn't it feel very evil?  It does to me, maybe because the villains don't really give a shit.

This plot also brings in the "Online disinhibition effect" where ordinary people are prone to do bad things (a.k.a. become a "total fuckwad") because:
  • "You don't know me"
  • "You can't see me"
  • "See you later" (asynchronous interactions)
  • "It's all in my head"
  • "It's just a game"
  • "Your rules don't apply here"
EDIT: I anticipate that some crypto-nerds are going to complain that the technology that I include in "Bright Red Phone" is not capable of supporting the sort of "cloak of invisibility" that plays out in the story.  For me, the technical details are plausible and realistic, but also they aren't essential to the plot.  All I need is technology that is "too clever for it's own good", rather like the "cone of silence" from the Get Smart TV show from the 1960s.  Yes, the "cone of silence" blocked other people from overhearing the conversation, but it also blocked the two people under the "cone" from hearing each other -- thus preventing all communication and eliminating its reason for being!!  In my plot, the key technical detail was that no unencrypted information was buffered or stored locally, which prevents the Official Monitoring System from having any "ground truth" to discern fake from real setups.

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