As we ate, she talked about FBI shenanigans through the ages. Turns out the American Indian Movement, which Monica wrote her dissertation about, was infiltrated by FBI informants who screwed up everything they were trying to do. But after a half an hour or so I started yawning my head off and told her I had to get some sleep. She pulled out the futon thing she sleeps on while I went into the little room under the eaves that was originally supposed to be a closet and still smelled a little like mothballs. I was getting to like that scent. It smelled like home.
My room is all weird angles and low ceilings. There’s an arched window in a gable where I have some big pillows and a sleeping mat, so it’s my office and my bed and my favorite hang-out spot. There weren’t any outlets in the closet, so I had to learn about wiring to run some conduit into my room. It was kind of fun figuring out how from YouTube videos and a library book. When I’m in my window nook, I get a great signal from a guy who leaves his wifi unprotected and can work there as late as I want. Tonight was going to be a long night.
As Monica was bumbling around, brushing her teeth and getting stuff ready for the class she had to teach the next morning, I switched on one of my laptops, hopped on a server in Sweden, and logged in. I also checked my other laptop, the one that had been running facial recognition software. (Believe it or not, I had found it in the trash behind one of the dorms at the U. It was a little slow, and the cover had a crack in it, but it worked fine once I blew dust out the keyboard, wiped the system, and installed Ubuntu.) It had finished and some of the results that had risen to the top looked a lot like Zip.
I quickly scanned the Group’s threads. There was a lot of chatter about a typhoon in Asia. The Group had members in the Philippines, so there was a lot of checking in going on, making sure people were okay, which they all were, though the pictures they were sharing were really scary. Call Me Cheese had flipped out about some grammar thing and started a big tangled brawl over whether it was okay to start a sentence with So. (Of course, everyone who joined in started their sentences with “So . . .” just to wind him up.) There was a conversation about a high school kid who was put in the hospital with a fractured skull by another student, all because he was wearing a skirt. I could have said a lot in that thread, but I didn’t have time. I had been getting a lot of pings on my previous post. The Group wanted an update. Like, hours ago.
<ferret> What’s the news, Shad?
<callmecheese> Shad! Phone home. We’re worried.
<Gargle> ‘Sup, Shad? You have any luck with that lawyer?
<Fa1staff> Tap tap tap – is this thing on?
<ferret> Don’t leave your family hanging.
<callmecheese> Come on, Shad. The suspense is killing us.
I typed a line.
<Shad> Hey guys, I’m back. Palaver?
They pinged in and in a few seconds I could start typing again.
<Shad> Got a lawyer.
<DoDec> Which one did you get?
<Shad> The best. Frances Bernadette McSweeney. Plus she recruited a whole legal team.
<Kadabra> On Bedford, amirite?
<Shad> Yep, that’s where she lives.
<DoDec> We should start a defense fund. We’re talking big bucks. Even if the lawyer’s pro bono, there’s filing fees and shit. Adds
<Kadabra> Paypal okay? DM me your deets and we’ll get it rolling.
<ferret> Unless there’s one already started.
<Gargle> That’s what I wondered. I found this site. Are you working with them, Shad?
The link took me to a website for something called “The Solidarity Committee for the Minneapolis Nine.” It looked a lot like sites used by other local activist groups. I did a Whois search and saw that the site owner’s identity was public – address, phone number, the works. Another quick search told me he was a kid who had become a full-time organizer, helping progressive causes around the Twin Cities by building websites and running social media campaigns. But duh, he wasn’t even smart enough to use a proxy domain.
<Shad> No. I don’t know them. But
I stopped typing to think. I wasn’t as out there with personal information as some Group members who filled us all in on the places they worked or their illnesses or what was going on with their families. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them. I just liked keeping some of me private, even from the Group. Which suddenly seemed weird.
They weren’t kidding when they said they were family. It really felt that way, though not in the same way as Wilson and Monica. It sounds strange, but in some ways I actually felt closer to the Group than to them. The Group cared about the things I cared about. We had inside jokes nobody else would get. When one of us needed help with code or a piece of hardware or rigging up a mesh network after a typhoon, which some members were working on right now while I was trying to decide what to say, people pitched in. A few weeks ago, freddieb wanted to get to a hackathon in London that he really, really wanted to be part of. Since he couldn’t afford the train ticket, we bought one for him. Another time, when Wrath of Cohen was having a crappy day because he was wrung out from his chemo and he was feeling really down, we figured out where he was staying that night and had his favorite pizza delivered to his hotel room, which made him feel good and made us feel great. We were family. So I suddenly wasn’t sure why I had always kept parts of my life so separate.
It was taking me so long to respond that Gargle, who had posted the link, started to apologize.
<Gargle> Soryr, Shad. Rpobbly not even the same thig.
He was in such a hurry to make me feel okay about keeping my secrets that he didn’t take time to fix his spelling, which is saying something, given how snarky Call Me Cheese always got about spelling and grammar. It made me feel a sudden rush of something I couldn’t quite figure out, but instead of figuring out what it was, I just started typing again.
<Shad> No. I don’t know them. But it is the same thing.
<Gargle> You’re not one of the nine?
<Shad> Not me. My brother is.
<Gargle> Oh f0rk. That sucks.
<Shad> I’m really scared about this. He can’t handle prison.
Other people joined the thread.
<inky> It’s sounds like a total setup.
<Shad> It was. One of those guys is working for the FBI.
<inky> That’s entrapment.
<callmecheese> Isn’t entrapment illegal?
<DoDec> Technically, but most of the terrorist convictions in the US since 9/11? That’s how they got them. They *invented* them. Total set-up jobs.
That was typical of DoDec. Whenever there was a question about whether something was illegal or not, he wrote these long, detailed answers. What’s weird is that he lives in Thailand where he runs a tech consulting company, but law is interesting to him, so he answers questions about it, whether the law someone is asking about is in America or Australia or China or the terms of some obscure trade agreement. There are a lot of really smart people in the Group.
<DoDec> The exceptions tend to be attacks that come out of the blue. Isolated people with a grudge and easy access to guns or small groups like the 7/7 bombers in London. They’re not connected to known terrorist organizations except emotionally so they’re really hard to anticipate.
<fa1taff> Let’s spy on everyone! That’ll work! </sarcasm>.
<Gargle> Build giant haystacks! That’s where needles usually are!
<Kadabra> I’ll run the defense fund through my paypal. DM me your contact info to contribute. Shad, just let us know how to get the money to the right people.
<ferret> What else can we do?
<callmecheese> Yeah, we want to help.
<Fa1staff> Want me to DDoS the DOJ? I could totally take down their website.
<Kadabra> Shaddup Fa1staff.
<ferret> Ahem, *constructive* ideas wanted.
<Gargle> Who is this FBI rat? Do you know, Shad?
I uploaded a recent photo of Zip and started typing.
<Shad> This guy. He goes by Zip and pretends to be an anarchist/activist, says he’s been at all kinds of demos from G8 to Ferguson.
<Shad> I ran a facial rec on it using ferret’s program off of Sourcerer (thanks, ferret!) I got a few hits. Not sure which ones are for real.
<Shad> But there are three that look especially good. One, he might be Jason Bristol, who got arrested for a charity fraud scheme in Michigan. Two, he might be Matthew Braxton, who robbed three banks in Oregon. There’s a security camera clip that kind of matches. Three, he might be Zachariah Pendleton who got arrested in Wyoming on a weapons charge three years ago.
<Kadabra> Or maybe he was just a VERY very busy boy.
<inky> A bank-robbing weapon-toting fraudster.
I uploaded the three pictures. That started off a race, with people combing the internet for information about the people my facial rec had coughed up. Within minutes we were filling dossiers set up for sharing data. I felt a little guilty that I was taking people’s attention away from the typhoon, but when I visited that thread, there was plenty of work going on there, too.
The Group is like that. They’re smart and funny and they get stuff done.
In case you’re wondering, that’s not its actual name. Its actual name is different every day, and it’s a randomly-generated word, so most of the time you can’t even pronounce it. We just call it the Group for short. It uses a Tor onion router and encrypts the conversations between members. I didn’t know anything about it until one day, when I was on Sourcerer, helping troubleshoot a chat program. Mattitude, who was also working on it, sent me his public key. When I sent him mine, he asked if I wanted to join. It’s not totally exclusive or anything – all kinds of people are part of it, and it’s not a huge secret, but it’s not like Reddit or Slashdot. Somebody has to let you in.
There was always the chance law enforcement was monitoring it, as DoDec reminded us regularly. But people in the Group weren’t criminals. It wasn’t a place to sell stolen credit card information or share malware code. Even joking about using the Group for criminal purposes could get you kicked out, fast and forever. The same went for political exploits like hacking into military servers or defacing government websites. That’s why Fa1staff got called instantly on his crack about launching a distributed denial of service attack on the Department of Justice.
Another weird thing about the Group is that it doesn’t have administrators. It’s not like Wikipedia, which is a really cool thing except the people who are most invested in it get bossy and love rules and use them to exclude people who aren’t like them. The Group doesn’t have rules, at least not ones that are written down. It has a few basic protocols and that’s it. Some of the older members say it’s like the internet used to be before it got commercial.
Anyway, it’s home and family and while I felt like I needed it just about every day since I’d joined, this was the first time I really needed it, the first time I asked for help that wasn’t about code or hardware.
Someone started collecting information on the Joint Terrorist Task Force in Minneapolis. That file started to fill fast, and ferret, who is really good with data sets and visualization, started a new thread where people brainstormed how to find patterns in all the stuff we were kicking up. Three hours later, ferret posted the results.
<ferret> Okay, it’s preliminary, but our best guess is that Zip is Jason Bristol, first arrested on a fraud charge in 2006. When he was facing serious federal charges in 2012 he went off the radar. Like totally off.
<ferret> And – drumroll please – we think his handler is Special Agent Todd Terhune, who worked on our boy’s first fraud case when he was an investigator for the Illinois State’s Attorney. He’s now FBI working out of the Minneapolis field office.
<ferret> I’ve got a visualization that shows these two have the most points in common when mapped over time and space.
He posted a link to it, a trippy, colorful, three-dimensional rotating tangle of lines and dots. When you clicked on it, the colored lines erased themselves, one by one, until only two were left, circling and intersecting, two timelines for two people, one a crook and one a cop, turned into wobbly lines that crossed over one another again and again.
<Kadabra> That’s awesome. What did you use?
<ferret> This thing I wrote for studying migration patterns in bird species. Turns out it works great for studying rats, too.
<Fa1staff> Okay, what will we do with this info?
<callmecheese> Take it to the press?
<Fa1staff> *What* press? The one that told us there were WMDs in Iraq? Or are you talking about the one that sat on the original NSA surveillance story waiting for permission from the feds?
<inky> Just get it out there. Let the people know so they can crowdsource a response.
<DoDec> Stuff gets twisted, though. Remember how Redditors found the wrong Boston marathon bomber? And then there’s all the state-sponsored misinformation. Could get muddy.
Then ferret brought the Group’s attention back to my brother in a way that caught me by surprise.
<ferret> Hey, I’m heading to Minneapolis for a few days. How about a meet-up?
<Kadabra> When will you be there, ferret?
<ferret> I was scheduled on a Sunday flight, but I can come sooner.
<Kadabra> I can be there.
<inky> I wish – too far from Melbourne.
<gargle> Count me in.
<DoDec> Are you going to that cyberlaw thing?
<ferret> Yep. Speaking on Tuesday.
<callmecheese> I’m signed up! Lemme see if I can change my tickets.
<Kadabra> There’s a great brewpub near the conference site. Dinner on Tuesday?
<ferret> Wait wait wait, what about Shad’s brother?
<Fa1staff> Yep, we need to figure that shit out.
<Gargle> Shad, does a meet-up sound good? I can fix us up with a safe place to get together.
I was frozen for a minute, unsure how to respond.
The day was catching up with me. It was nearly four in the morning, and my brain was feeling fuzzy. The Group had meet-ups regularly. Someone would say “hey, I’m going to be in Bangkok next week, anybody want to get together?” and people would figure out where to meet and hang out for a while. Or there’d be a hackathon or an SF fan convention or a gaming event – something that a handful of members might be going to and they’d work out a plan to meet somewhere.
There had been a meet-up in the Twin Cities once, but I didn’t go. I had reasons, but mostly I didn’t want my identity with the Group to get mixed up with who I am in real life. The person they knew was pretty good at code, pretty smart. A whole lot neater than me. The Group was my lifeline. I didn’t want to screw it up.
I took a breath and started typing.
<Shad> Totally. It would be great.
<Gargle> Ossum. Anybody who wants in, DM me for the deets.