The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) (6 page)

Among other things, Armansky told Blomkvist that his company, Milton Security, had supplied a number of personal alarms to a nursing home in Högdalen. Good equipment, he said.

But not even the best equipment in the world will help you if the electricity goes off and nobody can be bothered to fix it, and that is precisely what happened. There was a power outage at the home late one evening, and in the course of that night one of the residents, a lady called Rut Åkerman, fell and broke her femur, and she lay there for hour after hour pressing the button on her alarm to no avail. By the morning she was in a critical condition and, since the papers were just then focusing heavily on negligence in care for the elderly, the whole thing became a big deal.

Happily, the old lady pulled through. But she also happened to be the mother of a senior figure in the Swedish Democrats party. When it emerged on the party’s website, Unpixelated, that Armansky was an Arab – which incidentally he was not at all, although it was true that he was occasionally called “the Arab” in jest – there was an explosion in the posted comments. Hundreds of anonymous writers said that’s what happens “when you let coons supply your technology” and Armansky took it very badly, especially when the trolling affected his family.

But then suddenly, as if by magic, all those posts were no longer anonymous. You could see the names and addresses of those responsible, their job titles and how old they were. It was beautifully neat – as if they had all filled in a form. You could say that the entire site had been unpixelated, and of course it became clear that the posts did not just come from crackpots, but also from many established citizens, even some of Armansky’s competitors in the security business, and for a long time the hitherto-anonymous perpetrators were completely powerless. They could not understand what had happened. Eventually someone managed to close the site down. But nobody had any idea who lay behind the attack – except for Dragan Armansky himself.

“It was classic Salander,” he said. “You know, I hadn’t heard from her for ages and was convinced that she couldn’t give a damn about me, or anybody else for that matter. But then this happened, and it was fantastic. She had stood up for me. I sent an effusive thanks by email, and to my surprise an answer came back. Do you know what she wrote?”

“No.”

“Just one single sentence: ‘How the hell can you protect that creep Sandvall at the Östermalm clinic?’”

“And who’s Sandvall?”

“A plastic surgeon to whom we gave personal protection because he’d been threatened. He’d pawed a young Estonian woman on whom he had performed breast surgery and she happened to be the girlfriend of a known criminal.”

“Oops.”

“Precisely. Not such a clever thing to do. I answered Salander to say that I didn’t think Sandvall was one of God’s little angels any more than she did. But I pointed out that we don’t have the right to make that kind of judgement. Even male chauvinist pigs are entitled to some degree of security. Since Sandvall was under serious threat and asked for our help, we gave it to him – at double the usual rate.”

“But Salander didn’t buy your argument?”

“Well, she didn’t reply – at least not by email. But I suppose you could say she gave a different sort of answer.”

“What do you mean?”

“She marched up to our guards at the clinic and ordered them to keep calm. I think she even gave them my regards. Then she walked straight past all the patients and nurses and doctors, went into Sandvall’s office and broke three of his fingers. Then she made the most terrifying threats against him.”

“Jesus!”

“That’s putting it mildly. Stark staring mad. I mean, to do something like that in front of so many witnesses, and in a doctor’s office to boot. And of course there was a huge fuss afterwards – a lot of brouhaha about lawsuits and prosecutions and the whole damn thing. You can just imagine: breaking the fingers of a surgeon who’s lined up to perform a string of lucrative nips and tucks … It’s the kind of thing that gets top lawyers seeing dollar signs everywhere.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. It all came to nothing, apparently because the surgeon himself didn’t want to take things any further. But still, Mikael, it was insane. No person in their right mind steams into a top surgeon’s office in broad daylight and breaks his fingers. Not even Salander.”

Blomkvist actually thought that it sounded pretty logical, according to Salander logic, that is, a subject in which he was more or less expert. He did not doubt for one second that that doctor had done far worse than grope the wrong girlfriend. But even so he could not help wondering if Salander hadn’t screwed up in this case, if only on the score of risk analysis.

It occurred to him that she might have
wanted
to get into trouble again, maybe to put some spice back into her life. But that was probably unfair. He knew nothing of her motives or her current life. As the storm rattled the windowpanes and he sat there in front of his computer Googling Frans Balder, he tried to see beauty in the fact that they had now bumped into each other in this indirect way. It would seem that Salander was the same as ever and perhaps – who knows? – she had given him a story. Linus Brandell had irritated him from the word go. But when Salander dropped into the story, he saw it all with new eyes. If she had taken the time to help Frans Balder then he could at least take a closer look at it, and with some luck find out a bit more about Salander at the same time.

Why had she got herself involved in the first place?

She was not just some itinerant I.T. consultant after all. Yes, she could fly into a rage over life’s injustices, but for a woman who had no qualms about hacking to get indignant about a computer breach, that was a little bit surprising. Breaking the fingers of a plastic surgeon, fine! But hackers? That was very much like throwing stones in glass houses.

There must be some backstory. Maybe she and Balder knew each other. It was not inconceivable and so he tried Googling their names together, but without getting any hits, at least none that had any relevance.

He focused on Frans Balder. The professor’s name generated two million hits but most of them were scientific articles and commentaries. It did not seem as if Balder gave interviews, and because of that, there was a sort of mythological gloss over all of the details of his life – as if they had been romanticized by admiring students.

Apparently it had been assumed that Balder was more or less mentally disabled as a child until one day he walked into the headmaster’s office at his school on Ekerö island and pointed out a mistake in the ninth-grade maths book to do with so-called imaginary numbers. The mistake was corrected in subsequent editions and the following spring Balder won a national mathematics competition. He was reported as being able to speak backwards and create his own long palindromes. In an early school essay which was later published on the net he took a critical view of H.G. Wells’ novel
The War of the Worlds
on the grounds that he could not understand how beings superior to us in every way could fail to grasp something so basic as the differences between the bacterial flora on Mars and on Earth.

After graduating from secondary school he studied computer sciences at Imperial College in London and defended his thesis on algorithms in neural networks, which was considered revolutionary. He became the youngest ever professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. These days he was regarded as a world authority on the hypothetical concept of “technological singularity”, the state at which computer intelligence will have overtaken our own.

In most photographs he looked like a dishevelled troll with small eyes, his hair standing on end. Yet he married the glamorous actress Hanna Lind. The couple had a son who, according to evening newspaper coverage, under the headline
HANNA’S GREAT SORROW
, was mentally disabled, even though the boy did not – at least not in the picture accompanying the article – look in the least bit impaired. The marriage fell apart and, amidst a heated custody battle in Nacka district court, the
enfant terrible
of the theatre, Lasse Westman, stepped into the fray to declare aggressively that Balder should not be allowed to look after his son at all because he cared more about “the intelligence of computers than that of children”. Blomkvist concentrated his efforts on trying to understand Balder’s research, and for a long time he sat engrossed in a complicated text about quantum processors in computers.

Afterwards he went into Documents and opened a file he had created a year or so earlier. It was called
LISBETH STUFF
. He had no idea whether she was still hacking into his computer, but he could not help hoping that she did and wondered if he should not after all type out a little greeting. Long, personal letters were not her thing. He would do better to go for something brisk and a little bit cryptic. He wrote:


CHAPTER 5

20.xi

The words blinked onto the computer screen:


Plague gave a hoarse, almost deranged yell, and that may have been unwise. But even if the neighbours had happened to hear, they could not have dreamed what it was about. Plague’s home was not an obvious setting for high-level international security coups.

It felt more like a place where a social welfare case might hang out. Plague lived on Högklintavägen in Sundbyberg, a markedly unglamorous area with dull, four-storey, faded brick houses, and the apartment itself had nothing much going for it. It had a sour, stale smell, and his desk was covered in all sorts of rubbish, McDonald’s containers and Coca-Cola cans, crumpled-up pages from notebooks, unwashed coffee cups and empty sweet packets. Even though some had actually made it into the wastepaper basket – which had not been emptied for weeks – you could hardly take a step in the room without getting crumbs or grit under your feet. But none of this would have surprised anyone who knew him.

Plague was not a man who normally showered or changed his clothes much. He spent his whole life in front of the computer, even when he was not working: a giant of a man and overweight, bloated and unkempt, with an attempt at an imperial beard that had long since turned into a shapeless thicket. His posture was dreadful and he had a habit of groaning when he moved. But the man had other talents.

He was a wizard on the computer, a hacker who flew unconstrained through cyberspace and was probably second only to one person in the field, a woman in this particular case. The mere sight of his fingers dancing across the keyboard was a joy to behold. He was as light and nimble on the net as he was heavy and clumsy in the other, more material world, and as a neighbour somewhere upstairs, presumably Herr Jansson, now banged on the floor, he answered the message he had received:


Then he leaned back with a delighted smile and tried to run through in his mind the sequence of events, savouring the triumph for a little while longer before going on to pump Wasp for every detail, and to ensure that she had covered her tracks. No-one must be able to trace them, no-one!

This was not the first time they had been messing with a powerful organization. But this was on a new level, and many in Hacker Republic, the exclusive fellowship to which she belonged, had actually been against the idea, Wasp herself most of all. Wasp could take on just about any authority or person you could care to name, if it were necessary. But she did not like to pick a fight for its own sake.

She disliked that sort of childish hacker nonsense. She was not someone who hacked into supercomputers merely to show off. Wasp wanted to have a clear objective, and she always damn well analyzed the potential consequences. She weighed long-term risks against whatever need was being satisfied in the short-term, and from that point of view it could not be said it made sense to hack into the N.S.A. Still, she let herself be talked into it. Nobody could quite understand why.

Maybe she was bored and wanted to stir up a little chaos so as not to die of tedium. Or else, as some in the group claimed, she was already in conflict with the N.S.A. and therefore the breach amounted to little more than her personal revenge. But others in the group questioned even that and maintained she was looking for information, that she had been on the hunt for something ever since her father, Alexander Zalachenko, had been murdered at Sahlgrenska hospital in Göteborg.

But nobody knew for sure. Wasp had always had her secrets and actually her motives were unimportant, or so they tried to persuade themselves. If she was prepared to help then they should just accept gratefully and not worry about the fact that, to begin with, she had not shown much enthusiasm, or hardly any feelings at all in fact. At least she was no longer being awkward about it, and that seemed as much as anyone could hope for.

They knew better than most that the N.S.A. had outrageously overstepped its boundaries in recent years. These days the organization did not confine itself to eavesdropping on terrorists and potential security risks, or even just foreign heads of state and other powerful figures, but listened in on everything, or nearly everything. Millions, billions, trillions of communications and activities on the net were spied on and archived, and with each passing day the N.S.A. went further and further and pried deeper and deeper into every private life, and had become one immeasurable, watchful, evil eye.

It was true that nobody in Hacker Republic could claim the moral high ground here. Every single one of them had made their way into parts of the digital landscape where they had no business being. Those were the rules of the game, so to speak. A hacker was someone who crossed the line, for better or for worse, someone who by virtue of their occupation broke rules and broadened the frontiers of their knowledge, without always being concerned about the distinction between private and public.

But they were not without ethics and above all they knew, also from their own experience, how power corrupts, especially power without control. None of them liked the thought that the worst, most unscrupulous hacking was no longer carried out by solitary rebels or outlaws, but by state behemoths who wanted to control their populations. Plague and Trinity and Bob the Dog and Flipper and Zod and Cat and the whole Hacker Republic gang had therefore decided to strike back by hacking the N.S.A. and messing with them in one way or another.

That was no simple task. It was a little bit like stealing the gold from Fort Knox, and like the arrogant idiots they were they did not content themselves with breaking into the system. They also wanted superuser status, or “Root” in Linux language, and for that they needed to find unknown vulnerabilities in the system, for what was called a Zero-day attack – first on the N.S.A.’s server platform and then further into the organization’s intranet, NSANet, from which the authority’s signals surveillance went out across the world.

They began as usual with a little social engineering. They had to get hold of the names of systems administrators and infrastructure analysts who held the complex passwords for the intranet. It would not do any harm either if there was a chance that some careless oaf was being negligent about security routines. In fact through their own contacts they came up with four or five names, among them a Richard Fuller.

Fuller worked in the N.I.S.I.R.T., the N.S.A. Information Systems Incident Response Team, which supervised the intranet, and he was constantly on the lookout for leaks and infiltrators. Fuller was a decent sort of fellow – a Harvard law graduate, Republican, former quarterback, a dream patriot if one were to believe his C.V. But through a former lover Bob the Dog managed to discover that he was also bipolar, and possibly a cocaine addict.

When he got excited he would do all sorts of stupid things, such as opening files and documents without first putting them in a so-called sandbox, a required security protocol. Furthermore he was very handsome, though a little smarmy, and someone, probably Bob the Dog himself, came up with the idea that Wasp should travel to his home town in Baltimore, go to bed with him and catch him in a honey trap.

Wasp told them all to go to hell.

She also rejected their next idea, that they would compile a document containing information which looked like dynamite, specifically about infiltrators and leaks at head office in Fort Meade. This would then be infected with malware containing an advanced Trojan with a high level of originality which Plague and Wasp were to develop. The plan was to put out leads on the net which would lure Fuller to the file, and with a bit of luck get him so worked up that he would be careless with security. Not a bad plan at all – it could take them into the N.S.A.’s computer system without an active breach that might be traceable.

Wasp said that she was not going to sit around waiting for that blockhead Fuller to put his foot in it. She did not want to have to rely on other people making mistakes and was being generally contrary and bloody-minded, so no-one was surprised when she suddenly wanted to take over the whole operation herself. Even though there was a certain amount of protest, in the end they all gave in, but not without issuing a series of instructions. Wasp did carefully write down the names and details of the systems administrators which they had managed to obtain, and she did ask for help with the so-called fingerprinting: the mapping of the server platform and operating system. But after that she closed the door on Hacker Republic and the world, and Plague had no reason to think that she paid any attention to his advice, for example that she should not use her handle, her alias, and that she should not work from home but rather from some remote hotel under a false identity, in case the N.S.A.’s bloodhounds managed to track her down. Needless to say, she did everything her own way and all Plague could do was sit at his desk in Sundbyberg and wait, his nerves in tatters. Which is why he still had no idea how she had gone about it.

He knew one thing for certain: what she had achieved was legendary, and while the storm howled outside he pushed aside some of the rubbish on his desk, leaned forward and typed on his computer:



, came the answer.

Empty.

That was how it felt. Salander had hardly slept for a week and she had probably also had too little to drink and eat, and now her head ached and her eyes were bloodshot and her hands shook and what she wanted above all was to sweep all of her equipment to the floor. In one sense she was content, though hardly for the reason Plague or anyone else in Hacker Republic would have guessed. She was content because she had been able to get some new information on the criminal group she was mapping out; she had found evidence of a connection which she had previously only suspected. But she kept that to herself, and she was surprised that the others could have imagined that she would have hacked the system for the hell of it.

She was no hormone-fuelled teenager, no idiot show-off looking for a kick. She would only embark on such a bold venture because she was after something very specific, although it was true that once upon a time hacking had been more than just a tool for her. During the worst moments of her childhood it had been her way of escaping, a way to make life feel a little less boxed in. With the help of computers she could break through barriers which had been put in her way and experience periods of freedom. There was probably an element of that in the current situation too.

First and foremost she was on the hunt and had been ever since she woke up in the light of early dawn with her dream of that fist beating rhythmically, relentlessly on a mattress on Lundagatan. Her enemies were hiding behind smokescreens and this could be the reason why Salander had been unusually difficult and awkward of late. It was as if a new darkness emanated from her. Apart from a large, loudmouthed boxing coach called Obinze and two or three lovers of both sexes, she saw hardly anyone. More than ever she looked like trouble; her hair was straggly, her eyes threatening, and even though she sometimes made an effort she had not become any more fluent at small talk.

She spoke the truth or said nothing at all, and as for her apartment here on Fiskargatan … that was a story in itself. It was big enough for a family with seven children, although in the years since she had acquired the place nothing had been done to decorate it or make it homely. There were only a few pieces of Ikea furniture, placed seemingly at random, and she did not even have a stereo system, perhaps because she did not understand music. She saw more melody in a differential equation than in a piece by Beethoven. Yet she was as rich as Croesus. The money she had stolen from that crook Hans-Erik Wennerström had grown to a little more than five billion kronor, so she could afford whatever she wanted. But in some way – which was typical of her – her fortune had not made any mark on her personality, unless perhaps it had made her yet more fearless. She had certainly done some increasingly drastic things of late.

She may have crossed a line by wandering into N.S.A.’s intranet. But she had judged it necessary, and for several days and nights she had been totally absorbed. Now it was over she peered out of tired, squinting eyes at her two work desks, set at right angles. Her equipment consisted of the regular computer and the test machine she had bought, on which she had installed a copy of N.S.A.’s server and operating system.

She had run her own fuzzing program, which searched for errors and tiny vulnerabilities in the platform against the test computer. She then followed that up with debugging and black-box penetration testing and various beta test attacks. The outcome of all that formed the basis of her toolkit, including her R.A.T., so she could not afford to neglect a single point. She was scrutinizing the system from top to bottom and that was why she had installed a copy of the server here at home. If she had set to work on the real platform, the N.S.A. technicians would have noticed it immediately.

This way she was able to work on without distraction, day after day, and if she did happen to leave the computer then it was only to doze off for a while on the sofa or to put a pizza in the microwave. Apart from that she kept at it until her eyes hurt, especially with her Zero-day Exploit, the software which exploited the unknown security vulnerabilities and which would update her status once she had actually got in. It was completely mind-boggling. Salander had written a program which not only gave her ownership over the system, but also the power to control remotely pretty much anything on an intranet of which she had only patchy knowledge. That was the most extraordinary part.

She was not just going to break in. She was going further, into NSANet, which was a self-contained universe barely connected to the ordinary net. She might look like a teenager who had failed all of her subjects at school, but give her source codes in computer programs and a logical context and her brain just went click, click. What she had created was nothing less than wholly new and improved malware, an advanced Trojan with a life of its own.

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