“Doesn’t everyone deserve the right to privacy?” Doug asked.
“That’s a loaded question. There’s so much more to it,” Cody replied.
“I just think it’s a viable business idea,”
“Explain it to me one more time, because I’m pretty sure this idea is going to get you thrown in jail. Or worse.”
Cody sat in Doug’s apartment as Doug was trying to explain his early retirement plan. Cody had dropped by a couple of hours before, and the two of them were catching up. They typically got together at least once a week, but their schedules had been conflicting, and they hadn’t seen each other for almost three weeks.
They were discussing life and work as they drank a few beers and played with Doug’s old pinball machine. That was one of the few items he had left. Doug was slowly selling off and giving away many of the things he owned. He referred to it as editing his life. He was attempting to remove everything but the necessities.
Growing up, Doug was surrounded by knick-knacks—little trinkets on the walls, counters, and every other piece of furniture. Walking down a hallway was like walking through a flea market. Only nothing was for sale, and it was all nailed through the drywall.
When Doug was younger, he really didn’t get what it all meant. Now, as an adult, he still didn’t understand. He hated it. He made a conscious effort to have very few possessions. Every few months he would go through his closet and scale back what he owned. If he bought a new piece of clothing, he would donate something older from his closet.
His apartment was almost bare. All he wanted were the essentials. There was a big-screen TV against the back wall, the pinball machine in a corner, a fridge in the other corner with a smaller beer fridge beside it, and a coffee table with two chairs on one side and a couch on the other.
The walls were bare, without any pictures. All he had was one clock hanging in the living room. In a few months, that clock might not even be there. It was on his list of potential things to get rid of. Someone might look at his place and call it empty, but Doug would rather it be viewed as minimalist. Simple paint, simple furniture, simple dishes, simple everything. He felt it all led to a simple life.
Doug enjoyed being minimalist and saw it as a positive trait. Everything he owned meant something to him. He also saw it as a way to have low maintenance. In his closet were two pairs of pants, a handful of shirts, and a couple of other items. When he got dressed in the morning, he had little stress or worry about what to wear. He kept his hair short so he didn’t have to use any products or decide what hairstyle suited him. He couldn’t be bothered to shave every day, so he always had stubble. He’d rather be functional than stylish. It’s why he shaved his head every couple of weeks. Simple haircut, simple wardrobe, simple style, simple life.
Doug invited Cody over that evening because he had a grand scheme to make money, and he wanted to share it with his best friend. Doug had always been a thinker and never one to waste his free time. He prided himself on never really having any. He would always be working on a side project. If he did find himself with free time, he would read journal articles online about digital security. Cody always told him he needed a hobby, but Doug felt keeping up on technology was a legitimate pastime.
It was a few years ago that Doug graduated and obtained his PhD in Business Security and Information. With his degree, many people were quick to describe him as a nerd. But he didn’t look or act the stereotype. He was six-feet tall but had an athletic build. He kept in shape as much as he could and when Cody wasn’t around, he ate pretty healthy.
Unlike some of his classmates when he was in school, Doug was very social and could strike up a conversation with anyone about almost anything. This allowed him to grow his contact list with various people. But he didn’t consider any one of them friends. The only real friend Doug felt like he had was Cody. They had differences on many different subjects, such as politics and religion, but they trusted each other completely. Plus they always had fun when they were together.
Doug imagined his degree would take him straight to the head of some major IT department, where he could sit back, manage a few employees, teach a few university courses on the side, and have the money roll in at his feet. This never happened, and from Doug’s perspective, it didn’t look like it was going to happen any time soon.
Graduating right when a recession started was never really part of his grand plan. Student debt and contract jobs weren’t part of it either. Doug had a very well respected degree, but the problem was no one was hiring. He found himself overqualified for almost every job he applied for. He stayed unemployed for many months after graduation until a local security firm offered him a low-paying full-time job. It was an entry-level position, but it had good benefits. He didn’t want to argue with a paycheck, no matter how small it was, so he took the job. It wasn’t a permanent full-time position; instead, he signed a twelve-month contract with the firm. They had renewed it twice, but nothing was guaranteed in the future.
The job itself wasn’t exactly utilizing his knowledge or skills. It could have been done by a well-trained monkey and certainly by someone without a computer science degree. Doug’s day mostly involved walking around to each computer in the building and manually updating the antivirus software. There were over a hundred computers on-site, so it took a bit of time. Of course, Doug could have updated all the computers automatically over the network, but he figured if he started to automate his own job, he would probably just get fired. He made sure to work at a slow and methodical pace so he never looked bored throughout the day.
He never fixed anyone’s problem right away either. He could have, but he didn’t want to make his job seem easy. His coworkers were security guards and didn’t have the IT knowledge. It would take Doug at least a day to fix a printer problem when it could have been done in a few minutes. He couldn’t let on that his job was simple and even at his low pay he was being overpaid.
If there were any sort of system malfunction or misbehavior, Doug would have to notify management, and then it would be dealt with. He could have fixed them, but he didn’t want to start doing the work for cheap. The company would bring in a consultant to fix major issues.
Doug wanted to be that consultant one day. He was the lowest on the totem pole in the building, and he was making slightly more than minimum wage. Not really an exciting or lucrative career, but it paid the bills.
On day two at the job, Doug was already looking for another place of employment because he never felt challenged enough. He always viewed the job as a stopgap to where he would really end up. Doug wanted to be challenged at work, but he also wanted to make more money. His bank account was never empty, but it certainly wasn’t filling up fast.
Doug wasn’t a big spender, but he did want to build up his bank account in order to have an early retirement. The thought of working for forty years was really off-putting, and with teenage millionaires all over the Internet and TV, Doug felt he had the knowledge to strike it rich. Although it seemed with reality TV, less knowledge and restraint led to more money.
Most of his nights were spent alone writing research papers while having a couple of drinks. It was either beer or Scotch. On nights where he was having trouble writing, it was both. Nothing broke up writer’s block and got the creative juices flowing like a little bit of alcohol.
Even though Doug didn’t enjoy his job, he really enjoyed his area of expertise and still tried to contribute to the field as much as possible. He wrote a lot of papers on security and encryption and made a conscious effort to stay current with technology and his specific field.
He always had a passion for digital security, and with the popularity of social media increasing over the past few years, his interests grew, mainly because of how social media impacted the majority of the world. But this new world didn’t suck Doug in. He stayed away from all social media and made an effort to keep himself offline. He always told Cody he was ‘off the grid.’
Doug wanted to use the Internet as an anonymous being, not as himself. He had no photos online, no biography, and never used his real name anywhere. He’d seen too many times the negative results of social media and its ignorance for privacy. It made things tough and sometimes awkward when he would run into an old friend and they would want to exchange social details. Doug would instead try to swap emails, but it seemed like not many people wanted to email. Most people wanted to connect on a platform. And most platforms wanted a lot of personal information.
One night, while he was sitting alone in his apartment watching TV, news broke that one of the largest cannabis-growing operations in the district was broken up by the police due to a status update. One of the pot growers was posting information to a friend, alluding to him growing cannabis in his backyard and needing help. Unfortunately for the pot grower, he made the post public instead of private. Police were tipped off by this, and when they were given permission to search his Internet records, they found more than enough evidence to bust inside his place and make the arrest.
“Oh, you can’t be serious!” Doug yelled at the TV while he lounged on the couch after another robotic day at work. “You don’t post that stuff online, and you certainly don’t openly search the Internet like that. These people can’t be that stupid.”
Doug got really worked up over this news, but not because a drug dealer got caught growing weed. In fact, he couldn’t care less about the politics of it. It wasn’t about being pro-pot; it was about being anti-stupid. Doug usually didn’t get upset at much and always took the stance ‘it is what it is,’ but he did get annoyed when dumb people did dumb things. He had to put a face on at work when he was asked a foolish question. As much as he would want to walk away and ignore the person, he needed to pretend to care so he could keep his job.
Doug was the type of person who, when was asked a question like ‘Hey, guess what?’ just won’t respond because he realized he will never guess ‘what’ since there are an infinite amount of things that could be ‘what.’ He would either ignore the person or just politely respond “No” and walk away. He came off as rude but never intentionally meant to be rude. He just hated these types of questions and couldn’t be bothered to deal with dimwitted people. He valued his time and didn’t want to waste it on hypotheticals or nonsensical questions.
While completing his Masters and then PhD, part of his schooling involved how to cover your tracks online. Not in a malicious way, but for security reasons. If Doug was able to do what the hackers were doing, then he should have the knowledge to prevent it. Doug took courses on privacy, security, networks, as well as social engineering. He had such a deep knowledge of this area, he would sometimes assume everyone had this knowledge. In social settings, he would talk about security as if the person he was talking to was also an expert in that area.
Doug learned people have this feeling online that if they change their username and have a funny avatar, no one would know who they were. People would use their middle name as their last name but still post things publicly like ‘I’ll be on vacation soon! Fun in the sun!’ To Doug, the person might as well just say ‘my house will be empty, the key is under the rug.’ Most hacking didn’t need to be done by typing code. You could read through a person’s social media feed and often find out all you needed to know.
Doug also learned people had a false sense of security online, and he studied ways to exploit this, using social engineering or online attacks to prey on the people who think they are secure. He read countless articles and white papers on large corporations that had fallen victim to cyber attacks. The most common attack in all the hacks was social engineering. People were the weakest link in security, and hackers could exploit this. More often than not, it was easier to ask for a password than to steal it.
For one of his class projects, Doug wanted to prey on people’s false sense of security. He knew students and staff would do banking and check their email on the school’s public Wi-Fi. One day, Doug sat in the cafeteria and captured the email address and password of everyone in the room. He compiled this list of hundreds of passwords and handed it to his teacher. While she wasn’t impressed with his violation of the school’s acceptable use policy, she did give him an A+.
Doug had always imagined himself working for a top-secret company where he would have to fight off hackers and defend user data. He also imagined with his PhD he could teach at a university somewhere and change the lives of others, passing down information to the next generation and help make the world a safer place. He didn’t imagine doing daily updates on computers that anyone with an hour of computer experience could do.
As the news program continued, Doug tuned it out and started to think like an entrepreneur. He wondered why these big-time drug dealers didn’t have their own digital security team. There had to be someone qualified out there who also had a passion for illegal activities and drugs. These dealers always paid for bodyguards, and these guards were probably just happy to take a paycheck.
Then Doug started to wonder if they cared more about a paycheck than the actual job. He wondered if he would care if he were hired by someone doing something illegal. He sat there glaring past the TV and wondered what his morals were in this situation. And the situation defense lawyers might be in, or doctors. Is it wrong to save a patient who does illegal things? Of course not. Is it wrong to defend a criminal in court? No. Everyone deserves representation. So would it be wrong to help a criminal secure their data? He wasn’t sure. Then he thought about the money he could be making and didn’t think of the morality of the situation any longer.
And that was it. Doug realized he could potentially make a lot of money on the side by offering his expertise on how to stay protected online. He realized everyone needed some sort of protection when they were on the web, but he also realized some need it more than others. And some were willing to pay more for it. The idea started brewing, and Doug didn’t sleep at all that night. The thought of money, computers, security, excitement, untraceable emails, and more were racing through his mind. Doug’s business plan was simple. Get in touch with some top-end drug dealers and offer to give them a secure environment online and to secure their computer offline.
Doug put a lot of thought into the ethics behind this idea. Everyone had their right to personal privacy. If someone is going online to search for guns or cats, that person should be able to do that in their own privacy. They shouldn’t have to censor themselves because they are afraid of being put on some list. It wasn’t about protecting the so-called ‘bad guys,’; it was about giving people the right to their own privacy. With this logic, Doug was able to sleep at night knowing he wasn’t the one selling drugs or even condoning it. Instead, he was helping fellow citizens with their personal privacy. What they did when the curtains were drawn was their own choice.
The next day, Doug ran through different scenarios about what could potentially happen with his new possible venture. He was able to do a lot of research about his new idea while at work in his free time. Money was a motivating factor, but after doing more research, his passion for his field took over. He viewed this now as more of a puzzle and a challenge of how he had to do this right. There was no other option. If he guaranteed privacy and failed, that would be bad for his clients, bad for his business, and potentially really bad for him. If he did anything wrong, he could potentially have some really horrible people after him. He knew he had to do this right, and it was this challenge that drove him.
Later that day, Doug made a list of the supplies he would need for his new venture. He noted he would need a new computer that was completely wiped out and running a custom operating system. He also needed some software to run in the background that would be able to help mask the computer and its location. The problem Doug faced was once a computer was connected to the Internet, the game changed for keeping someone’s identity hidden. Security needed to be better, and the clients would have to somehow navigate a whole entire virtual universe while being invisible.
Doug also noted he would need some encryption tools and algorithms so he could protect whatever information might be on his client’s computer. Data such as contact information or anything else that needed to stay private would have to be encrypted. Just as important, it would need to be decrypted as well. A strong two-way algorithm was needed.
For all this to work, passwords would need to be strong. Much stronger than what most people used. A simple string of eight characters wasn’t going to be secure enough. The hashing algorithm he would use would also need to be very strong. The passwords themselves wouldn’t need two-way encryption as data did. Instead, a strong hashing algorithm would be used to store a muddled version of the password. When the user would type in their password, the two muddled results would be compared. As techy as this seemed, Doug needed to simplify it so the average user, or drug dealer, would be able to understand it.
Doug didn’t keep much from his university days. Notebooks, course syllabi, and homework were all shredded. But he did keep all of his computer science textbooks stored away in a bin. He pulled out any relevant textbooks from the back of his closet when he got home and started studying like he was a student again. The apartment was quiet with no music or TV in the background, and Doug sat on the couch and slid his yellow highlighter across key algorithms throughout the textbooks. He stayed away from any electronics that night because he wanted to make sure his ideas and plans had been given careful thought. He wanted no distractions. Doug stayed sitting on the couch almost all night, sipping tea and taking notes.
While Doug was doing his research, he felt like he was creating something big, and he was a part of something bigger than anything before. It was an odd feeling, because Doug had nothing really to show for his efforts. All he had were a few ideas scribbled down on a single sheet of paper. These ideas were new and interesting, and for the first time in a long time, he felt like he was making the most out of his knowledge and his degree.
At times during his research, he felt like he was a part of a covert operation, a secret spy working for a company with no name where he needed messages to self-destruct in minutes or seconds. Then he thought, Why shouldn’t messages self-destruct? If someone was sending an email back and forth that just had pickup times, delivery times, or temporary locations, then those messages had no need to stick around on the Internet. They had no need to be saved in an email or printed off. The messages certainly had no reason to be on some server in some unknown country.
Even better, Doug thought the whole email address itself could self-destruct. Having an email such as firstname.lastname@example.org probably isn’t the best. Doug wanted his clients to have an email with random characters they could share, and then that whole account could get wiped out. If someone tried to email that address again, it wouldn’t exist. Someone couldn’t trace email activity to an email address that was completely wiped out and only used once. Doug felt he was on to something, but he needed to do more research. As great an idea as this sounded, the logistics behind it were going to be tricky.
The hours started to fly by that night, and before he knew it, the hands on the clock were close to midnight. For most of his adult life, Doug had always been a nighthawk, so the time wasn’t a problem. Instead, he was surprised at how late it really was. Most nights when he looked at the clock, it would still be early in the evening. That night was different, and his feeling of doing something big was growing.
Doug kept taking notes, and as quick as he would jot an idea down, another one would spring into his head. He realized the computer also needed to be encrypted. Not only should messages be able to self-destruct, but the computer itself should be able to as well if the password was entered incorrectly too many times. If anyone ever got themselves into a situation where they were being forced to log in to their computer, there should be a backdoor for them to erase everything. Wiping out a computer is more than just simply reformatting it. He’d need to make sure all the sectors on the drives were completely erased. Doug made a note of this as his brain continued to work in overdrive.
The more ideas that came forward, the more Doug became worried. He kept thinking about the repercussions of giving bad people good security. He knew if the police or any other agency found out, he would immediately get on their watch list. At this point, there was really no need to worry about any of this, but Doug was still feeling cautious. He started to write down all of his ideas in code and short-form so if someone ever got a hold of them they wouldn’t fully know what his ideas were. He realized he was being a bit paranoid, and it wouldn’t be long until he started to burn everything he ever wrote down so there would be no trail.
Doug understood that with security, one weak link would tear apart the whole chain. He didn’t want to be the weak link. He definitely didn’t want his software to be either. Maybe a bit of paranoia was good.
It was around one in the morning before Doug got into bed. He lay with thoughts running around his head, unable to sleep. He spent at least an hour tossing and turning, thinking of more solutions to potential problems. And then he would think of more problems that needed solutions. He wanted to make sure to cover everything and to have no surprises. Finally, out of pure exhaustion, he fell asleep.
The next day, Doug went to work like any other day, but he spent all of his time thinking about his new project. He couldn’t help it. He kept a piece of paper in his pocket and would write down ideas or roadblocks whenever they popped into his head. And ideas were being created all the time. Even when he would try to focus on work, another potential issue would spring up. His piece of paper filled up on both sides by lunch. After that, he scribbled smaller near the edges.
After work, Doug made a quick meal, heating up rice from the night before. Then he invited his best friend over to help bounce ideas back and forth. Cody and Doug had been friends for over twenty years and had grown comfortable enough with each other to be brutally honest. Cody was in no way tech-savvy, but he grew up in a terrible neighborhood, and Doug was hoping he could give insight on life on that side of the tracks. Plus, it was an excuse to get together and have a few beers.
They sat outside on the balcony of Doug’s apartment, smoked a cigar, and had some drinks. Cody no doubt thought this was just another guys’ night where they could relax and complain about work. Instead, he heard about Doug’s new idea, and when he did, Cody was left a bit confused.
“Explain it to me one more time, because I’m pretty sure this idea is going to get you thrown in jail. Or worse.”
Cody paused for a moment as though trying to count how many beers he’d had and then continued. “You’ll get caught. Or you’ll piss off the police. In fact, if something goes wrong, you’ll piss off the criminals too. There is such a small chance of this plan working.”
“They’re not criminals, as far as I know. They’re clients,” replied Doug.
As soon as those words left his mouth, he felt like they were something he would say in front of a jury. Pleading stupid, as if the jury was just as dumb. Doug’s imagination continued, and he pictured himself in a courtroom saying, “No, Your Honor, I had no clue these well-known drug dealers were selling drugs.”
“All right, clients, sure,” said Cody. “One wrong move, or even coming close to a wrong move, and you will piss off everyone. Angry police mean you’ll probably get pulled over going 51 in a 50. And angry criminals.” Cody paused. “I mean clients, will probably get you killed.”
Cody finished off his beer and put the bottle down on the table in front of him. He walked inside to the fridge and grabbed another drink. He twisted off the cap and took another swig. He was a few beers in and started speaking faster. He took another big gulp of his beer and continued to express his concerns.
“Let’s just pretend this is a good idea and you are able to dance the line between good and bad. How much money do you think you can bring in, and do you really think this could work?”
Cody had valid concerns, and even though he was getting drunk and slurring, those words did get through to Doug. He didn’t have a response at the time. He never thought of what he would charge or what he would do if this all went south. The subject then changed to women, and Cody was ranting about his love life. All the while, Doug was thinking Could this really work?
The night ended late, and Cody ended up sleeping on the couch. While Cody was passed out, Doug was downloading tools online and starting to program some of his own. Money, which was his original motivation, already left his mind, and this had now become a challenge.
The idea was simple. Provide clients with 100% pure anonymity and security. They could browse the web, send emails, access files, all without leaving a trace. Nothing would be recorded, no logs would be kept, nothing would be traceable, and if anything was saved locally, it would all be encrypted. If any issues arose, the data would be wiped clean and would leave no trace.
Doug wanted to provide privacy and security. He believed everyone, good or bad, would benefit from what he was going to do. And then money came creeping back into his mind. Security came with a price.