THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Edwin Needham—Ed the Ned, as he was sometimes called—was not the most highly paid security technician in the United States. But he may have been the best.
He grew up in South Boston, Dorchester, and his father had been a monumental good-for-nothing, a drunk who took on casual work in the harbour but often disappeared on binges which not infrequently landed him in jail or in hospital. These benders were the family’s best time, a sort of breathing space. When Ed’s father could be bothered to be around, he would beat his mother black-and-blue. Sometimes she would spend hours or even whole days locked inside the toilet, crying and shaking. Nobody was very surprised when she died from internal bleeding at only forty-six, or when Ed’s older sister became a crack addict, still less when the remains of the family soon afterwards stood teetering on the brink of homelessness.
Ed’s childhood paved the way for a life of trouble and during his teenage years he belonged to a gang that called themselves “The Fuckers.” They were the terror of Dorchester and got mixed up in everything from mug- gings to robbing grocery stores. There was something brutal about Ed’s appearance from an early age and this was not improved by the fact that he never smiled and was missing two upper teeth. He was sturdy, tall, and fearless, and his face usually bore the traces of brawls with his father or gang fights. Most of the teachers at his school were scared to death of him. All were convinced that he would end up in jail or with a bullet in his head. But there were some adults who began to take an interest in him—no doubt because they discovered that there was more than aggression and violence in his intense blue eyes.
Ed had an irrepressible thirst for knowledge, an energy which meant that he could devour a book with the same vigour with which he could trash the inside of a public bus. Often he was reluctant to go home at the end of the school day. He liked to stay on in what was known as the technology room, where there were a couple of computers. He would sit there for hours. A physics teacher with the Swedish-sounding name of Larson noticed how good he was with machines, and after social services got involved he was awarded a scholarship and transferred to a school with more motivated students.
He began to excel at his studies and was given more scholarships and distinctions and eventually—something of a miracle in view of the odds against him—he went on to study Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. In his doctoral thesis he explored some specific fears around new asymmetric cryptosystems like RSA, and then went on to senior positions at Microsoft and Cisco before being recruited by the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.
He did not have the ideal CV for the job, even leaving aside his criminal behaviour as a teenager. He had smoked a lot of grass at college and flirted with socialist or even anarchist ideals. He had also been arrested twice for assault: bar fights. He still had a volcanic temper and everyone who knew him thought better of crossing him.
But at the NSA they recognized his other qualities. Besides which it was the autumn of 2001, and the American security services were so desperate for computer technicians that they hired pretty much anybody. During the ensuing years, nobody questioned Needham’s loyalty—or patriotism, for that matter—and if anyone thought to do so, his advantages always outweighed his shortcomings.
Needham was not just amazingly gifted. There was an obsessive streak to his character, a manic precision and a furious efficiency which boded well for a man in charge of building IT security at America’s most highly classified agency. Nobody was damn well going to crack his system. It was a matter of personal pride for him. At Fort Meade he quickly made himself indispensable to the point where people were constantly lining up to con- sult him. Not a few were terrified of him. He was often verbally abusive and had even told the head of the NSA himself, the legendary Admiral Charles O’Connor, to go to hell.
“Use your own busy fucking head for things you might just be able to understand,” Needham had roared when the admiral had attempted to comment on his work.
But O’Connor and everyone else let it happen. They knew that Needham screamed and yelled for the right reasons—because colleagues had been careless about security regulations, or because they were talking about things beyond their understanding. Not once did he interfere in the rest of the agency’s work, even though his level of clearance gave him access to pretty much everything, and even though in recent years the agency had found itself at the centre of a heated storm of opinion, advocates of both the right and the left seeing the NSA as the devil incarnate, Orwell’s Big Brother. As far as Needham was concerned, the organization could do whatever the hell it wanted, so long as his security systems remained rigorous and intact.
And since he did not yet have a family he more or less lived at the office. Apart from the occasional drinking session, during which he sometimes turned alarmingly sentimental about his past, there was no suggestion that he had ever told outsiders what he was working on. In that other world he remained as silent as the grave, and if ever questioned about his profession, he stuck to a well-rehearsed cover story.
It was not by chance, nor was it the result of intrigue or manipulation, that he had risen through the ranks and become the NSA’s most senior security chief. Needham and his team had tightened internal surveillance “so that no new whistle-blowers can pop up and punch us in the nose” and during countless sleepless nights created something which he alternately called “an unbreakable wall” or “a ferocious little bloodhound.”
“No fucker can get in, and no fucker can dig around without permis- sion,” he said. And he was enormously proud of that.
He had been proud, that is, until that disastrous morning in November. The day had begun beautiful and clear. Needham, who had put on a belly over the years, came waddling over from the coffee machine in his characteristic way. Because of his seniority he completely ignored dress codes. He was wearing jeans and a red-checked lumberjack shirt, not quite buttoned at the waist, and he sighed as he settled down at his computer. He was not feeling great. His back and right knee hurt and he cursed the fact that his long-time colleague Alona Casales had managed to persuade him to come out for a run the night before. Sheer sadism on her part.
Luckily there was nothing super-urgent to deal with. He only had to send an internal memo with some new procedures for those in charge of COST, a programme for cooperation with the large IT companies—he had even changed the codenames. But he did not get far. He was just beginning to write, in his usual turgid prose:
<To keep you all on your toes as good paranoid cyber agents, so that no-one will be tempted to fall back into idiotic habits, I would just like to point out>
when he was interrupted by one of his alerts.
He was not particularly worried. His warning systems were so sensitive that they reacted to the slightest divergence in the information flow. It was going to be an anomaly, a notification perhaps that someone was trying to exceed the limits of their authorization, or some minor interference.
As it turned out, he never had time to investigate. In the next moment something so uncanny happened that for several seconds he refused to believe it. He just sat there, staring at the screen. Yet he knew exactly what was going on. A RAT had been put on the intranet, NSANet. Anywhere else he would have thought, Those fuckers, I’ll crush them. But in here, the most tightly closed and controlled place of all, which he and his team had gone over with a fine-toothed comb a million times just this last year to detect every minuscule little vulnerability, here, no, no, it was impossible, it could not be happening.
Without realizing it he had closed his eyes, as if hoping that it would all vanish so long as he wasn’t watching. But when he looked at the screen again, the sentence he had begun was being completed. His <I would just like to point out> was continuing on its own with the words: <that you should stop with all the illegal activity. Actually it’s pretty straightforward. Those who spy on the people end up themselves being spied on by the people. There’s a fundamental democratic logic to it.>
“Jesus, Jesus,” he muttered—which was at least a sign that he was beginning to recover some of his composure.
But then the text went on: <Chill out, Ed. Why don’t youstick around for a ride? I’ve got Root> at which point he gave a loud cry. The word “Root” brought down his whole world. For about a minute, as the computer raced through the most confidential parts of the system at lightning speed, he genuinely believed that he was going to have a heart attack. He was only vaguely aware that people were beginning to gather around his desk.
There was not much of a crowd down at the Bishops Arms. It was only early in the afternoon, and the weather was not encouraging people to venture out, not even to the local pub. Blomkvist was nevertheless met by shouts and laughter, and by a hoarse voice bawling:
It came from a man with a puffy red face, a halo of frizzy hair, and a fussy moustache whom Blomkvist had seen many times in the area. He thought his name was Arne. Arne would turn up at the pub as regularly as clockwork at 2:00 every afternoon, but today he had clearly come earlier than that and settled down at a table to the left of the bar with three drinking companions.
“Mikael Blomkvist,” Blomkvist corrected him, with a smile.
Arne and his friends laughed as if Blomkvist’s actual name was the greatest joke ever.
“Got any good scoops?” Arne said.
“I’m thinking about blowing wide open the whole murky scene at the Bishops Arms.”
“You reckon Sweden’s ready for a story like that?”
“No, probably not.”
In truth Blomkvist quite liked this crowd, not that he ever talked to them more than in throwaway lines and banter. But these men were a part of the local scene which made him feel at home in the area, and he was not in the least bit offended when one of them shot out, “I’ve heard that you’re washed up.”
Far from upsetting him, it brought the whole campaign against him down to the low, almost farcical level where it belonged.
“I’ve been washed up for the last fifteen years, hello to you brother bottle, all good things must pass,” he said, quoting the poet Fröding and looking around for someone who might have had the gall to order a tired journalist down to the pub. Since he saw no-one apart from Arne and his gang, he went up to Amir at the bar.
Amir was big and fat and jolly, a hardworking father of four who had been running the pub for some years. He and Blomkvist had become good friends. Not because Blomkvist was an especially regular customer, but because they had helped each other out in completely different ways; once or twice when Blomkvist had not had the time to get to the state liquor store and was expecting female company, Amir had supplied him with a couple of bottles of red wine, and Blomkvist in turn had helped a friend of Amir’s, who had no papers, to write letters to the authorities.
“To what do we owe this honour?” Amir said. “
I’m meeting someone.”
“I don’t think so. How’s Sara?”
Sara was Amir’s wife and had just had a hip operation.
“Complaining and taking painkillers.”
“Sounds like hard work. Give her my best.”
“Will do,” Amir said, and they chatted about this and that.
But Linus Brandell did not show up and Blomkvist thought it was prob- ably a practical joke. On the other hand there were worse tricks to fall victim to than to be lured down to your local pub, so he stayed for fifteen minutes discussing a number of financial and health-related concerns before he turned and walked towards the door, and that is when Brandell appeared.
Nobody understood how Gabriella Grane had ended up at Säpo, Swed- ish Security Police, least of all she herself. She had been the sort of girl for whom everybody had predicted a glittering future. Her old girlfriends from the classy suburb of Djursholm worried that she was thirty-three and nei- ther famous nor wealthy nor married, either to a rich man or to any man at all for that matter.
“What’s happened to you, Gabriella? Are you going to be a policeman all your life?”
Most of the time she could not be bothered to argue, or point out that she was not a police officer but had been head-hunted for the position of analyst, and that these days she was writing far more challenging texts than she ever had at the Foreign Ministry or during her summers as a leader writer for Svenska Dagbladet. Apart from which, she was not allowed to talk about most of it in any case. So she might as well keep quiet and simply come to terms with the fact that working for the Swedish Security Police was considered to be about as low as you can go—both by her status-obsessed friends and even more so by her intellectual pals.
In their eyes, Säpo was a bunch of clumsy right-leaning idiots who went after Kurds and Arabs for what were fundamentally racist reasons and who had no qualms about committing serious crimes or infringements of civil rights in order to protect former senior Soviet spies. And indeed, sometimes she was on their side. There was incompetence in the organization, values that were unsound, and the Zalachenko affair remained a major blot. But that was not the whole truth. Stimulating and important work was being done as well, especially now after the shakeout, and sometimes she had the impression that it was at Säpo, not in any editorial or lecture hall, that people best understood the upheavals that were taking place across the world. But she still often asked herself: How did I end up here, and why have I stayed?
Presumably some of it came down to flattery. No less a person than Helena Kraft, the newly appointed chief of Säpo at the time, had contacted her and said that after all the disasters and bad press they had to rethink their approach to recruitment. We need to “bring on board the real talents from the universities and, quite honestly, Gabriella, there’s no better person than you.” That was all it had taken.
Grane was hired as an analyst in counter-espionage and later in the Industry Protection Group. Even though as a young woman, attractive in a slightly proper sort of way, she got called a “daddy’s girl” and “snotty upper-class bitch,” she was a star recruit, quick and receptive and able to think outside the box. And she could speak Russian. She had learned it alongside her studies at the Stockholm School of Economics, where needless to say she had been a model student but never that keen. She dreamed of something bigger than a life in business, so after her graduation she applied for a job at the Foreign Ministry and was accepted. But she did not find that especially stimulating either—the diplomats were too stiff and neatly combed. It was then that Helena Kraft had gotten in touch. Grane had been at Säpo for five years now and had gradually been accepted for the talent that she was, even if it was not always easy.
It had been a trying day, and not just because of the ghastly weather. The head of the division, Ragnar Olofsson, had appeared in her office looking surly and humourless and told her that she should damn well not be flirting when she was out on an assignment.
“Flowers have been delivered.”
“And that’s my fault?”
“Yes, I do think you have a responsibility there. When we’re out in the field we have to show discipline and reserve at all times. We represent an absolutely key public agency.”
“Well, that’s great, Ragnar dear. One always learns something from you. Now I finally understand that I’m responsible for the fact that the head of research at Ericsson can’t tell the difference between normal polite behaviour and flirting. Now I realize that I should blame myself when men indulge in such wildly wishful thinking that they see a sexual invitation in a simple smile.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Olofsson said, and he disappeared.
Later she regretted having answered back. That kind of outburst rarely does any good. On the other hand, she had been taking shit for far too long. It was time to stand up for herself. She quickly tidied her desk and got out a report from GCHQ in Britain about Russian industrial espionage against European software companies, which she had not yet had time to read. Then the telephone rang. It was Kraft, and that made Grane happy. She had never yet called to complain or moan. On the contrary.
“I’ll get straight to the point,” Kraft said. “I’ve had a call from the United States, it may be a bit of an emergency. Can you take it on your Cisco? We’ve arranged a secure line.”
“Good, I’d like you to interpret the information for me, see if there’s anything in it. It sounds serious, but I can’t get a handle on the person who’s passing it on—who, by the way, says that she knows you.”
“Put me through.”
It was Alona Casales at the NSA—although for a moment Grane won- dered if it really was her. When they had last met, at a conference in Washington, D.C., Casales had been a self-assured and charismatic lecturer in what she somewhat euphemistically described as active signals surveillance: hacking, in other words. Afterwards she and Grane had gone out for drinks, and almost against her will, Grane had been enchanted. Casales smoked cigarillos and had a dark, sensuous voice well suited to her punchy one-liners and frequent sexual allusions. But now on the telephone she sounded confused and sometimes unaccountably lost the thread of what she was saying.
Blomkvist did not really know what to expect, a fashionable young man, presumably, some cool dude. But the fellow who had arrived looked like a tramp, short and with torn jeans and long, dark, unwashed hair, something slightly sleepy and shifty in his eyes. He was maybe twenty-five, perhaps younger, had bad skin, and a rather ugly mouth sore. Linus Brandell did not look like someone who was sitting on a major scoop.
“Linus Brandell, I presume.”
“That’s right. Sorry I’m late. Happened to bump into a girl I knew. We were in the same class in ninth grade, and she—”
“Let’s get this over with,” Blomkvist interrupted him, and led the way to a table towards the back of the pub.
When Amir appeared, smiling discreetly, they ordered two pints of Guinness and then sat quietly for a few seconds. Blomkvist could not understand why he felt so irritated. It was not like him; perhaps the whole drama with Serner was getting to him after all. He smiled at Arne and his gang, all of whom were studying them keenly.
“I’ll come straight to the point,” Brandell said.
“That sounds good.”
“Do you know Supercraft?”
Blomkvist did not know much about computer games, but even he had heard of Supercraft.
“By name, yes.”
“No more than that?”
“In that case you won’t know that what makes this game different, or at least so special, is that it has a particular AI function: it allows you to communicate with a player about war strategy without being really sure, at least to begin with, whether you’re talking to a real person or a digital creation.” “You don’t say,” Blomkvist said. Nothing interested him less than the
finer points of a damn game.
“It’s a minor revolution in the industry and I was actually involved in developing it,” Brandell said.
“Congratulations. In that case you must have made a killing.”
“That’s just it.”
“The technology was stolen from us and now Truegames is making billions while we don’t get a single öre.”
Blomkvist had heard this line before. He had even spoken to an old lady who claimed that it was actually she who had written the Harry Potter books and that J. K. Rowling had stolen everything by telepathy.
“So how did it happen?” he said.
“We were hacked.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s been established by experts at the National Defence Radio Establishment. I can give you a name there if you want, and also by a …”
“Nothing. But even the Security Police were involved, you can talk to Gabriella Grane there. She’s an analyst and I think she’ll back me up. She mentioned the incident in a report which she published last year. I have the reference number here …”
“In other words, this isn’t news,” Blomkvist interrupted.
“No, not in that sense. New Technology and Computer Sweden wrote about it. But since Frans didn’t want to talk and on a couple of occasions even denied that there had been any breach at all, the story never went very far.”
“But it’s still old news.”
“I suppose so.”
“So why should I be listening to you, Linus?”
“Because now Frans seems to have understood what happened. I think he’s sitting on pure dynamite. He’s become completely manic about secu- rity. Only uses hyper-encryption for his phones and e-mail and he’s just got a new burglar alarm with cameras and sensors and all that crap. I think you should talk to him. That’s why I got in touch with you. A guy like you could get him to open up. He doesn’t listen to me.”
“So you order me down here because it seems as if someone called Frans may be sitting on some dynamite.”
“Not someone called Frans, Blomkvist, it’s none other than Frans Balder, didn’t I say that? I was one of his assistants.”
Blomkvist searched his memory: the only Balder he could think of was Hanna Balder, the actress, whatever might have become of her. “Who’s he?” he said.
The look he got was so full of contempt that he was taken aback.
“Where’ve you been living, Mars? Frans Balder is a legend. A household name.”
“Christ, yes!” Brandell said. “Google him and you’ll see. He became a professor of computer sciences at just twenty-seven and for two decades he’s been a leading authority on research in artificial intelligence. There’s hardly anyone who’s as far advanced in the development of quantum computing and neural networks. He has an amazingly cool, back-to-front brain. Thinks along completely unorthodox, groundbreaking lines and as you can probably imagine the computer industry’s been chasing him for years. But for a long time Balder refused to let himself be recruited. He wanted to work alone. Well, not altogether alone, he’s always had assistants he’s driven into the ground. He wants results, and he’s always saying: ‘Nothing is impossible. Our job is to push back the frontiers, blah blah blah.’ But people listen to him. They’ll do anything for him. They’ll just about die for him. To us nerds he is God Almighty.”
“I can hear that.”
“But don’t think that I’m some starstruck admirer, not at all. There’s a price to be paid, I know that better than anyone. You can do great things with him, but you can also go to pieces. Balder isn’t even allowed to look after his own son. He messed up in some unforgivable way. There are a lot of different stories, assistants who’ve hit the wall and wrecked their lives and God knows what. But although he’s always been obsessive he’s never behaved like this before. I just know he’s onto something big.”
“You just know that.”
“You’ve got to understand, he’s not normally a paranoid person. Quite the opposite. He’s never been anywhere near paranoid enough, given the level of the things he’s been dealing with. But now he’s locked himself into his house and hardly goes out. He seems afraid and he really doesn’t do scared.”
“And he was working on computer games?” Blomkvist said, without hiding his scepticism.
“Well … since he knew we were all gaming freaks he probably thought we should get to work on something that we liked. But his AI programme was also right for that business. It was a perfect testing environment and we got fantastic results. We broke new ground. It was just …”
“Get to the point, Linus.”
“Frans and his lawyers wrote a patent application for the most innova- tive parts of the technology, and that’s when the first shock came. A Russian engineer at Truegames had thrown together an application just before, which blocked our patent. It can hardly have been a coincidence. But that didn’t really matter. The patent was only a paper tiger. The interesting thing was how the hell they had managed to find out about what we’d been doing. Since we were all devoted to Frans even to the point of death, there was only one possibility: we must have been hacked, in spite of all our security measures.”
“Is that when you got in touch with Säpo and the National Defence Radio Establishment?”
“Not at first. Balder is not too keen on people who wear ties and work from nine to five. He prefers obsessive idiots who are glued to their computers all night long, so instead he got in touch with some weirdo hacker he had met somewhere and she said straightaway that we’d had a breach. Not that she seemed particularly credible. I wouldn’t have hired her, if you see what I mean, and perhaps she was just talking drivel. But her main conclusions were nevertheless subsequently borne out by people at the NDRE.”
“But no-one knew who had hacked you?”
“No, no, trying to trace hacker breaches is often a complete waste of time. But they must have been professionals. We had done a lot of work on our IT security.”
“And now you suspect that Balder may have found out something more about it?”
“Definitely. Otherwise he wouldn’t be behaving so strangely. I’m con- vinced he got wind of something at Solifon.”
“Is that where he worked?”
“Yes, oddly enough. As I told you before, Balder had previously refused to let himself be tied up by the big computer giants. No-one has ever banged on as much as he did about being an outsider, about the importance of being independent and not being a slave to commercial forces. But out of the blue, as we stood there with our trousers down and our technology sto- len, he suddenly accepted an offer from Solifon, of all companies. Nobody could understand it. OK, they were offering a megasalary, free rein, and all of that crap, like: Do whatever the hell you want, just work for us, and that probably sounded cool. It would definitely have been cool for anyone who wasn’t Frans Balder. But he’d had any number of offers like that from Google, Apple, and all the others. Why was this suddenly so interesting? He never explained. He just packed his stuff and disappeared and from what I’ve heard it went swimmingly at first. Balder continued to develop our technology and I think Solifon’s owner, Nicolas Grant, was beginning to fantasize about revenues in the billions. There was great excitement. But then something happened.”
“Something that you don’t actually know so much about.”
“No, we lost contact. Balder lost contact with pretty much everyone. But I understand enough to know that it must have been something seri- ous. He had always preached openness and enthused about the Wisdom of Crowds, all that stuff; the importance of using the knowledge of many, the whole Linux way of thinking. But at Solifon he apparently kept every comma secret, even from those who were closest to him, and then—wham bam—he gave notice and went home, and now he’s sitting there in his house in Saltsjöbaden and doesn’t even go out into the garden or give a damn how he looks.”
“So what you’ve got, Linus, is a story about a professor who seems to be under pressure and who doesn’t care what he looks like—though it’s not clear how the neighbours can see that, if he never goes outside?”
“Yes, but I think …”
“Listen, this could be an interesting story. But unfortunately it isn’t for me. I’m no IT reporter—as someone so wisely wrote the other day, I’m a caveman. I’d recommend you contact Raoul Sigvardsson at the Swedish Morning Post. He knows everything about that world.”
“No, no, Sigvardsson is a lightweight. This is way above his head.”
“I think you underestimate him.”
“Come on, now, don’t chicken out. This could be your comeback, Blomkvist.”
Blomkvist made a tired gesture towards Amir, who was wiping a table not far from them.
“Can I give you some advice?” Blomkvist said.
“What? Yes … sure.”
“Next time you have a story to sell, don’t try to explain to the reporter what’s in it for him. Do you know how many times people have played me that tune? ‘This is going to be the biggest thing in your career. Bigger than Watergate!’ You’d do better with just some basic matter-of-fact information, Linus.”
“I just meant …”
“Yes, what actually did you mean?”
“That you should talk to Frans. I think he would like you. You’re the same uncompromising kind of guy.”
It was as if Brandell had suddenly lost his self-confidence and Blomkvist wondered if he had not been unnecessarily tough. As a general principle, he tended to be friendly and encouraging towards people who gave him tipoffs, however weird they sounded. Not just because there might be a good story even in something that sounded crazy, but also because he recognized that often he was their last straw. There were many who turned to him when everyone else had stopped listening. He was the last hope, and there was never any excuse to be scornful.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ve had a really bad day and I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic.”
“And you know,” Blomkvist said. “There’s one thing which interests me about this story. You said you had a visit from a female hacker.”
Alona Casales was not one to become nervous easily and she rarely had trouble staying on topic. She was forty-eight, tall, and outspoken, with a voluptuous figure and small intelligent eyes which could make anybody feel insecure. She often seemed to see straight through people and did not suffer from a surfeit of deference to superiors. She would give anyone a dressing down, even the Attorney General if he came calling. That was one of the reasons why Ed the Ned got on so well with her. Neither of them attached much importance to status; all they cared about was ability.
Nevertheless, she had completely lost it with the head of Sweden’s Security Police. This had nothing to do with Helena Kraft. It was because of the drama unfolding in the open-plan office behind her. Admittedly they were all used to Needham’s explosions of rage. But something told her right away that what was going on now was on an altogether different scale.
The man seemed paralyzed. While Casales sat there blurting some confused words down the line, people gathered around him and all of them, without exception, looked scared. But perhaps because she was in a state of shock, Casales did not hang up or say that she would call back later. She let herself be put through to Gabriella Grane, that charming young analyst whom she had met and tried to seduce in Washington. Even though Alona had not succeeded in taking her to bed, she had been left with a deep feeling of pleasure.
“Hello, my dear,” she said. “How are you?”
“Not so bad,” Grane answered. “We’re having some terrible storms, but otherwise everything’s fine.”
“I really enjoyed that last time we saw each other.”
“Absolutely, it was nice. I was hungover the whole of the next day. But I don’t suppose you’re calling to ask me out.”
“Unfortunately not. I’m calling because we’ve picked up signs of a serious threat to a Swedish scientist.”
“For a long time we had trouble understanding the information, or even working out which country it concerned. The communication was encrypted and used only vague codenames, but still, once we got a few small pieces of the puzzle we managed … what the hell …”
“One second …”
Casales’s computer screen blinked, then went blank, and as far as she could see the same thing was happening all over the office floor. For a moment she wondered what to do, but carried on the conversation; it might just be a power outage, after all, although the overhead lights seemed to be working.
“I’m still here,” said Grane.
“Thanks, I appreciate it. Sorry about this. It’s complete chaos here. Where was I?”
“You were talking about pieces of the puzzle.”
“Right, yes, we put two and two together, because there’s always one person who’s careless, however professional they try to be, or who …”
“Um … talks, gives an address or something, in this case it was more like …”
Casales fell silent again. None other than Commander Jonny Ingram, one of the most senior people in the NSA with contacts high up in the White House, had come onto the office floor. Ingram was trying to appear as composed as usual. He even cracked some joke to a group sitting further away. But he was not fooling anyone. Beneath his polished and tanned exterior—ever since his time as head of the cryptological centre in Oahu he was suntanned all year round—you could sense something nervous in his expression. Now he seemed to want everybody’s attention.
“Hello, are you still there?” Grane said on the other end of the line.
“I’m going to have to leave you, unfortunately. I’ll call you back,” Casales said, and hung up.
At that moment she became very worried indeed. There was a feeling in the air that something terrible had happened, maybe another major ter- rorist attack. But Ingram carried on with his soothing act and, even though there was sweat on his upper lip and forehead, he kept repeating that it was nothing serious. Most likely a virus, he said, which had found its way into the intranet, despite all the security precautions.
“To be on the safe side, we’ve shut down our servers,” he said, and for a moment he really did manage to calm things down. “What the hell,” people seemed to be saying, “a virus isn’t such a big deal.”
But then Ingram started spouting such vague statements that Casales could not stop herself from shouting:
“Tell us what’s actually happening!”
“We don’t know that much yet. But it’s possible that our systems have been hacked. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know more,” Ingram said, looking concerned, and a murmur ran through the room.
“Is it the Iranians again?” somebody wondered.
“We think …” Ingram said.
He got no further. Ed Needham, the person who should have been standing there in the first place, explaining what was happening, interrupted him brusquely and got to his feet, a bear of a man. At that moment there was no denying that he was an imposing sight. Gone was the deflated Needham from a minute before; he now exuded a tremendous sense of determination.
“No,” he hissed. “It’s a hacker, a fucking superhacker, and I’m going to cut his balls off.”
“The female hacker doesn’t really have anything to do with this story,” said
Brandell, nursing his beer. “She was more like Balder’s social project.”
“But she seemed to know her stuff.”
“Or she was just lucky. She talked a lot of rubbish.”
“So you met her?”
“Yes, just after Balder took off for Silicon Valley.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Almost a year. I’d moved our computers into my apartment on Brantingsgatan. My life was not great, to put it mildly. I was single and broke and hung over, my place looked like hell. I had just spoken to Frans on the telephone, and he’d been going on like some boring old dad. There was a lot of: Don’t judge her by how she looks, appearances can be deceptive blah blah, and hey, he said that to me! I’m not exactly the ideal son-in-law myself. I’ve never worn a jacket and tie in my entire life, and if anyone knows what people look like in the hacker community, then I do. Whatever, so I was sitting there waiting for this girl. Thought that she would at least knock. But she just opened the door and walked in.”
“What did she look like?”
“Bloody awful … but then, she was also sexy in a weird way. But dread- ful!”
“Linus, I’m not asking you to rate her looks. I just want to know what she was wearing and if she maybe mentioned what her name was.”
“I have no idea who she was,” Brandell said, “although I did recognize her from somewhere—I had the feeling that it was something bad. She was tattooed and pierced and all that crap and looked like a heavy rocker or goth or punk, plus she was as thin as hell.”
Hardly aware that he was doing it, Blomkvist gestured to Amir to pull him another Guinness.
“What happened?” Blomkvist said.
“Well, what can I say? I guess I thought that we didn’t have to get going right away, so I sat down on my bed—there wasn’t much else to sit on— and suggested that we might have a drink or something first. But do you know what she did then? She asked me to leave. She ordered me out of my own home, as if that was the most natural thing in the world. Obviously I refused. I was like: ‘I do actually live here.’ But she said: ‘Piss off, get lost,’ and I didn’t see what choice I had so I was out for a while. When I got back she was lying there on my bed, smoking—how sick is that? And reading a book about string theory or something. Maybe I gave her some sort of dodgy look, what do I know, and she said that she wasn’t planning on having sex with me, not even a little. ‘Not even a little,’ she said, and I don’t think she looked me in the eye even once. She just announced that we’d had a Trojan, a RAT, and that she recognized the pattern in the breach, the level of originality in the programming. ‘You’ve been blown,’ she said. And then she walked out.”
“Without saying goodbye?”
“Without a single damn word.”
“But to be honest I think she was bullshitting. The guy at the NDRE, who did the same investigation a little while later, and who probably knew much more about these kinds of attacks, was very clear that you couldn’t draw any conclusions like that, and that however much he searched through our computer he couldn’t find any spyware. But still his guess was—Molde was his name, by the way, Stefan Molde—that we’d been hacked.”
“This woman, did she ever introduce herself in any way?”
“I did actually press her, but all she would say was that I could call her Pippi. Pretty surly she was too. It was obvious that that wasn’t her real name, but still …”
“I thought it suited her somehow.”
“You know,” Blomkvist said, “I was just about to head home again.”
“Yes, I noticed that.”
“But now everything’s changed in a pretty major way. Did you say that your professor Balder knew this woman?”
“In that case I want to talk to him as soon as possible.”
“Because of the woman?”
“Something like that.”
“OK, fine,” Brandell said thoughtfully. “But you won’t find any contact details for him. He’s become so bloody secretive, like I said. Do you have an iPhone?”
“In that case you can forget it. Frans sees Apple as more or less in the pocket of the NSA. To talk to him you’ll have to buy a Blackphone or at least borrow an Android and download a special encryption programme. But I’ll see to it that he gets in touch with you, so you can arrange to meet in some secure place.”
“Great, Linus, thanks.”
Grane had just put on her coat to go home when Casales called again, and at first she was irritated, not only because of the confusion last time. She wanted to get going before the storm got out of hand. The news on the radio had forecast winds of up to sixty-seven miles per hour and the tem- perature falling to -10°C, and she was not dressed for it.
“I’m sorry it took a while,” Casales said. “We’ve had an insane morning. Total chaos.”
“Here too,” Grane said politely, looking at her watch.
“But I do have something important to tell you, as I said, at least I think I do. It isn’t that easy to analyze. I just started checking out a group of Rus- sians, did I mention that?” Casales said.
“Well, there are probably Germans and Americans involved and possibly one or more Swedes.”
“What sort of group are we talking about?”
“Criminals, sophisticated criminals who don’t rob banks or sell drugs. Instead they steal corporate secrets and confidential business information.”
“They’re not just hackers. They also blackmail and bribe people. Possibly they even commit old-fashioned crimes, like murder. I don’t have much on them yet, to be honest, mostly codenames and unconfirmed links, and then a couple of real names, some young computer engineers in junior positions. The group is active in suspected industrial espionage and that’s why the case has ended up on my desk. We’re afraid that cutting-edge American technology has fallen into Russian hands.”
“But it isn’t easy to get at them. They’re good at encryption and, no matter how hard I try, I haven’t been able to get any closer to their leadership than to catch that their boss goes by the name of Thanos.”
“Yes, derived from Thanatos, the god of death in Greek mythology, the one who’s the son of Nyx—night—and twin brother to Hypnos—sleep.”
“Real cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
“Actually, it’s pretty childish. Thanos is a supervillain in Marvel Comics, you know that comic book series with heroes like the Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America. First of all it’s not particularly Russian, but more than that it’s … how do I put this … ?”
“Both playful and arrogant?”
“Yes, like a bunch of cocky college kids messing around, and that really annoys me. In fact there’s a whole lot that worries me about this story, and that’s why I got so worked up when we learned through our signals surveillance that someone in the network may have defected, somebody who could maybe give us some insight—if only we could get our hands on this guy before they do. But now that we’ve looked more carefully, we realize it wasn’t at all what we thought.”
“The guy who quit wasn’t some criminal, but the opposite, an honest person who resigned from a company where this organization has moles, someone who presumably stumbled on some key information …”
“In our view this person is now seriously under threat. He needs protection. But until recently we had no idea where to look for him, we didn’t even know which company he’d worked at. But now we think we’ve zeroed in,” Casales said. “You see, in the last few days one of these characters mentioned something about this guy, said that ‘with him all the bloody Ts went up in smoke.’”
“The bloody Ts?”
“Yes, cryptic and strange, but it had the advantage of being specific and highly searchable. While ‘bloody Ts’ didn’t give us anything, Ts generally, words beginning with T in conjunction with companies, high-tech firms of
course, kept leading us to the same place—to Nicolas Grant and his maxim: Tolerance, Talent, and Teamwork.”
“We’re talking Solifon here, right?” Grane said.
“We think so. At least it felt like everything had fallen into place, so we began to investigate who had left Solifon recently. The company always has such high staff turnover, it’s part of their philosophy—that talent should flow in and out. But then we started to think specifically about those Ts. Are you familiar with them?”
“They’re Grant’s recipe for creativity. By tolerance he means that you need to be open to unconventional ideas and unconventional people. Talent—it doesn’t just achieve results, it attracts other gifted people and helps create an environment that people want to be in. And all these talents have to form a team. As I’m sure you know, Solifon was a remarkable success story, producing pioneering technology in a whole series of fields. But then this new genius popped up, a Swede, and with him …”
“… all the bloody Ts went up in smoke.” “Exactly.”
“And it was Frans Balder.”
“I don’t think he normally has any problem with tolerance, or with teamwork for that matter. But from the beginning there was apparently something toxic about him. He refused to share anything and in no time at all he managed to destroy the rapport among the elite researchers at the company, especially when he started accusing people of being thieves and copycats. There was a scene with the owner, too. But Grant has refused to tell us what it was about—just that it was something private. Soon after, Balder gave notice.”
“Most people were probably relieved when he took off. The air at work became easier to breathe, and people began to trust each other again, at least up to a point. But Grant wasn’t happy, and more importantly his lawyers weren’t happy either. Balder had taken with him whatever he had been developing at Solifon, and there was a rumour—maybe because no-one really knew what it was—that he was onto something sensational that could revolutionize the quantum computer, which Solifon was working on.”
“And from a purely legal point of view whatever he’d produced belonged to the company and not to him personally.”
“Correct. So even though Balder had been going on about theft, when all was said and done he himself was the thief. Any day now things are likely to blow up in court, as you know, unless Balder manages to use whatever he has to frighten the lawyers. That information is his life insurance, so he says, and it may well be true. But in the worst-case scenario it could also be …”
“… the death of him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Casales said. “We’re picking up stronger indications that something serious is getting under way, and your boss tells me that you might be able to help us.”
Grane looked at the storm that was now raging outside, and longed desperately to go home and get away from it all. Yet she took off her coat and sat down again, feeling uneasy.
“How can I help?”
“What do you think he found out?”
“Do I take that to mean that you haven’t managed either to bug him or hack him?”
“I’m not going to answer that one, sweetheart. But what do you think?” Grane remembered how Frans Balder had stood in the doorway of her office not so long ago and muttered about dreaming of “a new kind of life”—whatever he may have meant by that.
“I assume you know,” she said, “I met him before he joined Solifon, because he claimed that his research had been stolen. I didn’t warm to him much, at first. Then there was talk in-house of getting him some form of protection, so I met him again. His transformation over the last few weeks was incredible. Not only because he had shaved off his beard, tidied up his hair and lost some weight. He was also mellower, even a little bit unsure of himself. I could tell he was rattled and at one point he did say that he thought there were people who wanted to harm him.”
“In what way?”
“Not physically, he said. It was more his research and his reputation they were after. But I’m not so sure, deep down, he believed it would stop there, so I suggested he get a guard dog. I thought a dog would be excellent company for a man who lived out in the suburbs in far too big a house. But he wouldn’t hear of it. ‘I can’t have a dog now,’ he said rather sharply.”
“Why’s that, do you think?”
“I really don’t know. But I got the feeling there was something weighing on him: he didn’t protest too much when I arranged for a sophisticated alarm system in his house. It has just been installed.”
“A company we often use, Milton Security.”
“Good. But my recommendation is to move him to a safe house.” “Is it that bad?”
“We think the risk is real.”
“OK,” Grane said. “If you send over some documentation I’ll have a word with my superior right away.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not sure what I can get my hands on. We’ve been having … some computer issues.”
“Can an agency like yours really afford that sort of thing?”
“No, you’re right. Let me get back to you, sweetheart,” she said, and hung up.
Grane remained quite still and looked out at the storm lashing against the window with increasing fury. Then she picked up her Blackphone and rang Balder. She let it ring and ring. Not just to warn him and see to it that he move to a safe place at once, but also because she suddenly wanted to know what he had meant when he said: “These last few days I’ve been dreaming about a new kind of life.”
No-one would have believed that at that moment Balder was fully occu- pied with his son.
Blomkvist remained sitting for a while after Brandell had left, drinking his Guinness and staring into the distance. Behind him, Arne and his gang were laughing at something. But Blomkvist was so engrossed in his thoughts that he heard nothing, and hardly even noticed that Amir had sat down next to him and was giving him the latest weather forecast.
The temperature was dropping. The first snow of the year was expected to fall, and not in any pleasant or picturesque way. The misery was going
to come blasting in sideways in the worst storm the country had seen for a long time.
“Could get hurricane-force winds,” Amir said, and Blomkvist, who still was not listening, just said, “That’s good.”
“Yes … well … better than no weather at all.”
“I suppose. But are you all right? You look shaken up. Was it a useful meeting?”
“Sure, it was fine.”
“But what you got to hear rattled you, didn’t it?”
“I’m not certain. Things are just a mess right now. I’m thinking of quit- ting Millennium.”
“I thought you basically were that magazine.”
“I thought so, too. But I guess there’s an end to everything.”
“That’s probably true,” Amir said. “My old man used to say that there’s even an end to eternity.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“I think he was talking about love everlasting. It was shortly before he left my mother.”
Blomkvist snorted. “I haven’t been so good at everlasting love myself. On the other hand …”
“There’s a woman I used to know, she’s been out of my life for some time now.”
“Well, yes it is. But now I’ve suddenly had a sign of life from her, or at least I think I did, and perhaps that’s what’s got me looking a bit funny.”
“I’d better get myself home. What do I owe you?”
“We can settle up another time.”
“Great, take care, Amir,” he said. He walked past the regulars, who threw a few random comments at him, and stepped into the storm.
It was a near-death experience. Gusts of wind blew straight through his body, but in spite of them he stood still for a while, lost in old memories. He thought about a dragon tattoo on a skinny, pale back, a cold snap on Hedeby Island in the midst of a decades-old missing person case, and a dug-up grave in Gosseberga that was nearly the resting place of a woman who refused to give up. Then he walked home slowly. For some reason he had trouble getting the door open, had to jiggle the key around. He kicked off his shoes and sat at his computer and searched for information on Frans Balder, Professor.
But he was alarmingly unfocused and instead found himself wondering, as he had so many times before: Where had she disappeared to? Apart from some news from her one-time employer, Dragan Armansky, he had not heard a word about her. It was as if she had vanished off the face of the earth and, although they lived in more or less the same part of town, he had never caught a glimpse.
Of course, the person who had turned up at Brandell’s apartment that day could have been someone else. It was possible, but not likely. Who else would come stomping in like that? It must have been Salander, and Pippi … that was typical.
The nameplate on her apartment door on Fiskargatan was V. Kulla and he could well see why she did not use her real name. It was all too searchable and associated with one of the most high-profile trials the country had ever seen. Admittedly, it was not the first time that the woman had vanished in a puff of smoke. But ever since that day when he had knocked on her door on Lundagatan and given her hell for having written a personal inves- tigation report about him which was rather too thorough, they had never been apart for so long. It felt a little strange, didn’t it? After all, Salander was his … well, what the hell was she in point of fact?
Hardly his friend. One sees one’s friends. Friends don’t only get in touch by hacking into your computer. Yet he still felt this bond with Salander and, above all, he worried about her. Her old guardian Holger Palmgren used to say that Lisbeth Salander would always manage. Despite her appalling childhood, or maybe because of it, she was one hell of a survivor, and there was probably a lot of truth in that. But one could never be sure, not with a woman of such a background, and with that knack for making enemies.
Perhaps she really had gone off the rails, as Armansky had hinted when he and Blomkvist met over lunch at Gondolen about six months ago. It was a spring day, a Saturday, and Armansky had offered to buy beer and snaps and all the rest of it. Even though they were ostensibly meeting as two old friends, there was no doubt that Armansky only wanted to talk about Salander and, with the help of a few drinks, indulge in a spot of sentimentality.
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 critical condition and, since the papers were just then focusing heavily on negli- gence 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.” 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. 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 any- body else for that matter. But then this happened, and it was fantastic. She had stood up for me. I sent an effusive thanks by e-mail, and to my surprise an answer came back. Do you know what she wrote?”
“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.”
“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 judgment. 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 e-mail. 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 even think she 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 and made the most terrifying threats against him.”
“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 on top of it all. 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.”
“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 circumstances. 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 lead. 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 gotten herself involved in the first place?
She was not just some itinerant IT 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 at 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 not any that had 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 the details of his life, as if they had been roman- ticized 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 books 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 later published online he took a critical view of H. G. Wells’s 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 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 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 bit cryptic. He wrote:
<What should we make of Frans Balder’s artificial intelligence?>
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 candy wrappers. Even though some had actually made it into the waste-paper 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, 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 online 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:
<Wasp, you bloody genius. They ought to put up a statue to you!>
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 messed with a powerful organization. But this was on a new level, and many in Hacker Republic had actually been against the idea, Wasp herself most of all.
Wasp could take on just about any authority or person you would care to name, if it were necessary. But she did not like picking a fight for its own sake. She disliked that sort of childish hacker nonsense. She was not some- one 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 NSA. Still, she let herself be talked into it. Nobody could quite understand why.
Maybe she was bored and wanted to stir up a bit of chaos so as not to die of tedium. Or else, as some in the group claimed, she was already in conflict with the NSA 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.
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 for that matter. At least she was no longer being awkward about it, and that seemed as much as anyone could expect.
Hacker Republic knew better than most that the NSA 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 online were spied on and archived, and with each passing day the NSA went further and further and pried deeper and deeper into every private life. The agency 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 his occupation broke rules and broadened the frontiers of his 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 NSA 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 vul- nerabilities in the system, for what was called a Zero-day Exploit—first on the NSA’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. Through their own contacts they came up with four or five names, among them one Richard Fuller.
Fuller worked in the NISIRT, the NSA 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 CV. But through a former lover, Bob the Dog managed to discover that he was also bipolar, and possibly a cocaine addict.
When Fuller 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 and a little smarmy. Someone, probably Bob the Dog himself, came up with the idea that Wasp should travel to his home 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 the 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 online 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 NSA’s computer system without an active breach that might be traceable.
But Wasp said that she was not going to sit around waiting for that block-head Fuller to put his foot in it. She did not want to have to rely on other peo- ple making mistakes. She 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 NSA’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:
<Tell me! How does it feel?>
<Empty>, came the answer.
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 early light of dawn with her dream of that fist beating rhythmically, relentlessly on a mattress on Lundagatan. Her enemies were hiding behind smoke screens 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 more fluent at small talk. She spoke the truth or said nothing at all. 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 homey. 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 the NSA’s intranet. But she had judged it necessary, and for several days and nights she had been totally absorbed. Now that it was over she peered out of tired, squinting eyes at her two work desks, set at a right angle. Her equipment consisted of the regular computer and the test machine she had bought, on which she had installed a copy of the NSA’s server and operating system.
She had run her own fuzzing programme, 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 root kit, including her RAT, 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 NSA technicians would have noticed it immediately.
This way she was able to work 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 gotten in. It was completely mind-boggling. Salander had written a programme 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 programmes 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.
She found the pay-as-you-go card she had bought from T-Mobile in Berlin and put it into her telephone. Then she used it to go online. Maybe she should have been far away in another part of the world, dressed up as her alter ego, Irene Nesser. If the security people at the NSA were diligent and on top of things, they just might be able to trace her to Telenor’s base station here on the block. They would not get all the way through, at least not with the technology now available, but it would still be close enough and that would be very bad news. Yet she reckoned the advantages of sitting here at home outweighed the risk, and she did take all the security precautions she could. Like so many other hackers, she used Tor, a network by which her traffic bounced about among thousands and thousands of users. But she also knew that not even Tor was watertight—the NSA used a programme called EgotisticalGiraffe to crack the system—so she spent a long time further improving her own personal security. Only then did she go on the attack.
She sliced into the platform like a blade through paper, but she could not afford to become over-confident as a result. Now, quickly, she had to locate the systems administrators whose names she had been given and inject her Trojan into one of their files, thereby creating a bridge between the server network and the intranet, none of which was simple, not by any means. No warning bells or antivirus programmes must be allowed to start ringing. In the end she used the identity of a man called Tom Breckinridge to penetrate NSANet and then … every muscle in her body tensed. Before her eyes, her over-worked, sleepless eyes, the magic unfolded.
Her Trojan took her further and further in, into this, the most secret of the secret, and she knew exactly where she was going. She was on her way to Active Directory—or its equivalent—to upgrade her status. She would go from unwelcome little visitor to superuser in this teeming universe, and only once that was done would she try to get some sort of overview of the system. It wasn’t easy. It was more or less impossible, in fact, and she did not have much time either.
She worked fast to get a grip on the search system and to pick up all the passwords and expressions and references, all the internal gibberish. She was at the point of giving up when she finally found a document marked top secret, noforn—no foreign distribution—not particularly remarkable in itself. But together with a couple of communications links between Zigmund Eckerwald at Solifon and cyber agents at the Department for the Protection of Strategic Technologies at the NSA, it turned into dynamite. She smiled and memorized every little detail. Then she caught sight of yet another document that seemed relevant. It was encrypted and she saw no alternative but to copy it, even if that would set alarm bells ringing at Fort Meade. She swore ferociously.
The situation was becoming critical. Besides, she had to get on with her official assignment, if “official” was the right word. She had solemnly promised Plague and the others at Hacker Republic to pull down the NSA’s trousers, so she tried to work out whom she should be communicating with. Who was to get her message?
She settled for Edwin Needham, Ed the Ned. His name invariably came up in connection with IT security and as she quickly picked up some infor- mation about him on the intranet, she felt a grudging respect. Needham was a star. But she had outwitted him.
For a moment she thought twice about giving the game away. Her attack would create an uproar. But an uproar was exactly what she was looking for, so she went ahead. She had no idea what time it was. It could have been night or day, autumn or spring, and only vaguely, deep in her conscious- ness, was she aware that the storm over the city was building up, as if the weather was synchronized with her coup. In distant Maryland, Needham began to write his e-mail.
He didn’t get far, because in the next second she took over his sentence and then continued: <Those who spy on the people end up themselves being spied on by the people. There’s a fundamental democratic logic to it>, and for a moment it felt as if those sentences hit the mark. She savoured the hot, sweet taste of revenge and afterwards she dragged Ed the Ned along on a journey through the system. The two of them danced and tore past a whole flickering world of things that were supposed to remain hidden at all costs.
It was a thrilling experience, no question, and yet … when she disconnected and all her log files were automatically deleted, then came the hangover. It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner. Those sentences that had seemed so absolutely right a few seconds ago began to sound increasingly childish and more and more like the usual hacker nonsense. Suddenly she longed to drink herself into oblivion. With tired, shuffling steps she went into the kitchen and fetched a bottle of Tullamore D.E.W. and two or three beers to rinse her mouth with, and sat down at her computers and drank. Not in celebration. There was no sense of victory left in her body. Instead there was … well, what? Defiance perhaps.
She drank and drank while the storm roared and congratulatory whoops came streaming in from Hacker Republic. But none of it touched her now. She hardly had the strength to stay upright and with a wide, hasty movement she swept her hand across the desktops and watched with indif- ference as bottles and ashtrays crashed to the floor. Then she thought about Mikael Blomkvist.
It must have been the alcohol. Blomkvist had a way of popping up in her thoughts when she was drunk, as old flames do, and without quite realizing what she was doing she hacked into his computer. She still had a shortcut into his system—it was not exactly the NSA—and at first she wondered what she was doing there.
Could she care less about him? He was history, just an attractive idiot she had once happened to fall in love with, and she was not going to make that mistake again. She’d much rather get out of there and not look at another computer for weeks. Yet she stayed on his server and in the next moment her face lit up. Kalle Fucking Blomkvist had created a file called [Lisbeth stuff ] and in that document there was a question for her:
<What should we make of Frans Balder’s artificial intelligence?>
She gave a slight smile, in spite of it all, and that was partly because of Frans Balder. He was her kind of computer nerd, passionate about source codes and quantum processors and the potential of logic. But mostly she was smiling at the fact that Blomkvist had stumbled into the very same situation she was in. Even though she debated for some time whether just to shut down and go to bed, she wrote back:
<Balder’s intelligence isn’t in the least bit artificial. How’s your own these days?>
<And what happens, Blomkvist, if we create a machine which is a little bit cleverer than we are?>
Then she went into one of her bedrooms and collapsed with her clothes on.
Buy Now - Electronic
Buy Now - Hardcover