Mother[up]lode: Friday, Part 4

Louise obediently went back to the table and ate without tasting any of it. She tried to work out what Penelope had told her. What she knew and understood was that the Cognizoid kept the body from breaking down her Neures-Q, and then moved the Neures-Q into the place of her destroyed or damaged neurons…

Wait.

What happened to what the Neures-Q was supposed to be doing? That is, slowing the destruction of her brain. If the Neures-Q was being bound into place, then the degradation it was supposed to be inhibiting…

“Continues. It continues,” she said aloud in her horror.

“What?” Penelope said.

“I just… realized something,” Louise said. When Penelope turned to her expectantly, she said, “The Cognizoid is stopping the Neures-Q from doing its work by turning into replacement neurons, right?”

“Right,” Penelope said.

“That means, there’s no Neures-Q available to do its original job,” Louise said. “So the destruction of the neurons continues, and Cognizoid keeps replacing those destroyed neurons…”

“So that over time, there’s less and less meat-brain in there,” Penelope said.

Louise bit her lip and clenched her fists. “So the bastards are replacing our brains.” She stood up and paced, which felt better than sitting still. “I mean, I was already wondering how much of me this is,” she said, gesturing to herself. “How much of me is responding to you? I mean, I have no idea how much of my brain has been replaced at this point. How many of my memories are gone forever, like Mick’s memory of her motorcycle accident? How much of me is there left? And if they’re just replacing my brain, how much of me will be left in a week? In a month? In a year?” Her pacing sped up as she walked, circling the little dining area and broadening into the living room with time. “And that’s not even taking into account a possibly accelerated degeneration from an autoimmune response, because how well does the body actually cope with having artificial neurons up there?”

Penelope let her rant, and finally said, “How much of Mick was there after her time on the stuff?”

Louise stopped and thought. “Most of her,” she admitted. “She forgot some things. A lot of things. But I guess… I guess the essence of Mick was there.”

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about not being Louise,” Penelope said.

“But when I start programming, it’s like someone turns out the light on me,” Louise said, sitting down because her knees were protesting.

“I don’t know what that’s about,” Penelope said. “I’ve only tracked the code for the VR. There may be some sharing routines in there. For all I know, the woman whose programming skills you’re using made them herself.” Penelope got a thoughtful look. “I wonder if that woman is Sheila. Because none of the ones I’ve investigated have that kind of background.”

“That would be ironic or something,” Louise said, suddenly exhausted and having to hold her head in her hands again. “I hate it. It’s like someone else is running around in my head.” She had another thought. “So, someone installed this shit in my CPU?”

Penelope said, “Yes, that’s what I think.” She wheeled over to a cabinet and started rummaging through it.

“Could they have installed some sort of… of… coercive something with it?” Louise asked.

“You mean, other than the fact that you’re all supplying processing power and the labor to deflect incoming hacker attacks?” Penelope said, examining some mechanism and tossing it aside.

“Like, to force us to go fight hacker attacks?” Louise said. Penelope shot her a sharp glance, and Louise said, “I noticed that both Mick and I seemed to have compulsions to respond to the alarm bell.”

“Oh, I do not like that,” Penelope said, returning to her rummage with extra energy. “There are words for that shit.”

“‘Being used’ is possibly the most polite I can think of,” Louise said. “I mean, if they were straight up about this whole thing, they’d probably get volunteers, because, hell, brain function. Which brings up whether it’s possible to get valid consent from demented people anyway.”

“And no one cares if Grandma doesn’t remember this-or-that thing,” Penelope said, producing some box and fiddling with it, “as long as she’s not shitting the bed or forgetting her children’s names. Just like no one cares if part of Grandma’s cyber brain is being used for supposedly-governmental defense while she’s playing with the kiddies because isn’t that just a small price to pay?”

“Quality of life,” Louise snarled bitterly. “Improved cognitive function.”

“Yes,” Penelope said, setting the little box on the table and leaning forward. “And now we know why most of these women don’t have close families and are on assistance. At least for now. Proof of concept.” She produced a small screwdriver and donned a light-up magnifier headset. She started to take the box apart. “But right here, right now, I am gonna fix that shit. At least in your head.”

“What are you going to do?” Louise said, sitting down after another turn around the room.

“I am going to dezombify you,” Penelope said, adjusting some wiring with some tiny pliers.

“Excuse me?” Louise said.

“You and the others,” Penelope said, fiddling around inside the box, “are running a program that you don’t know is there and operating on systems you don’t intend to, but someone else intends you to. In my book, that makes you equivalent to zombie machines that provide processing power and perform actions directed by someone else. You’re wetware zombies.”

“Except what’s making us zombies is eating our brains,” Louise said sourly.

Penelope made a half-amused noise of agreement. They sat in silence for a few minutes before Louise restlessly got up and went for the food.

“So what will happen when you… do whatever it is you’re planning?” Louise asked. “Your de-zombification project, that is.”

“Well, first, I have to download the code out of your head,” Penelope said, “and that’s where this comes in. This thing finds wireless transmissions and lets me follow them upstream to the sources. I can pull the code out of your hardware and take a look at it, see what makes it tick, and then fix the fucker.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Louise said, fidgeting with her cheese.

Penelope considered her through the magnifiers. “Nope, not to help me,” she said. “Why don’t you get online and poke around some in your specialty? I’ll let you know when I’ve done my part.”

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5 thoughts on “Mother[up]lode: Friday, Part 4

  • January 14, 2021 at 9:07 pm
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    Still loving this story, thank you!

    Proofreading (if you want it?): extra “to” in here:
    and lets me to follow them upstream to the sources.

    Reply
    • January 19, 2021 at 2:01 am
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      Thank you so much!

      Reply
  • February 14, 2021 at 1:35 pm
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    Hello! I’m giving myself 15-20 minutes to write about tech security concepts, as an experiment.

    A. My partner is a writer, so I know there’s a chance this won’t be useful/helpful. Feedback from strangers is always kind of risky. If not, that’s fine and I’ll skip it next time; I’m 100% enjoying & supporting the story regardless.

    B. If there are ideas that *are* useful and may be plot-relevant, reject this comment in moderation so other readers don’t see it. …I guess this is awkward. If you want other ways to communicate, I’m reachable on Twitter @jtheory, or email at glitter@jtheory.com


    So: this concept is great, and I love the wetware/hardware zombie idea.

    For getting access to the code: I had some ideas about this mechanism:
    > “Well, first, I have to download the code out of your head,” Penelope said, “and that’s where this comes in. This thing finds wireless transmissions and lets me follow them upstream to the sources. I can pull the code out of your hardware and take a look at it, see what makes it tick, and then fix the fucker.”

    Vulnerabilities are pretty much always there in functions that were added intentionally, for another purposes, but accidentally also allow an exploit.

    Identifying the source of a wireless transmission can definitely mean you can then query the same interface that was sending (in Louise’s brain), but you’re limited to whatever access was intentionally set up, and it’d be pretty unusual to add a call that was “provide your entire source code”. BUT there are other good exploit pathways here.

    E.g. this is an early stage project, and they’re live testing it in the wild. It’d be very normal to expose one or more of these:
    1. Client-pull auto-updates: Louise’s system connects to a central server and checks for updates & patches. If there’s one available, it pulls it down & installs it.
    2. Pushed updates: Louise’s system exposes a call for a central server to connect & push updated code to her
    3. Louise’s brain connects to a central server and pushes a stream of data: event logs, metrics, error reports, etc.

    Normally these would all be seriously locked down — encrypted, and with authentication mechanisms that would stop a middleman attack. But.. this is early stage, no one knows about it, and they may be relying on a lot of security by obscurity.

    I’d bet that #1 and #3 are more likely, and the best way to break in.

    E.g.: sniff #3. This data may not even be well-secured, because they (maybe) think it’s low-risk. But it’s easy for an event log to accidentally include some data, like maybe a key used when the client fetches updates.

    The update mechanism is the juicy part: fake being Louise’s brain, and you can fetch the latest version of her software directly from the central source. That’s her source code. 🙂

    Next: insert yourself as a middle-man, and when Louise’s brain checks for updates… answer that query with a “yes”, there’s a new version!” and provide your own slightly-modified version instead of the real one. This can then expose more functions to the outside, including stuff like “trigger a reboot” that probably wouldn’t be there before that.

    Side-effects:
    * The central server may notice that Louise’s brain downloaded version 21.2.1 twice (because the second download wasn’t actually Louise’s brain). But probably won’t.
    * The update mechanism will keep checking for updates. If we provided a fake version 21.2.2, then when (real) 21.2.3 comes out, it’ll overwrite the hacked version. ALT: we think of this in time, and the hacked version doesn’t install updates from central anymore.

    — Timebox ended; I find this fun; I hope it’s useful! —

    Reply
    • February 15, 2021 at 10:26 am
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      Um, as usual, I notice in retrospect that I wrote way too much about… a paragraph

      and there’s the possibility that you know far more about sec than I do but chose this shortcut

      … please do feel free to just quietly delete then and I’ll go back to reading ♡

      I have a tough time figuring out how to interact with strangers who feel so familiar after reading years of their writing online; my instincts are all so misleading

      Reply
      • February 15, 2021 at 6:38 pm
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        No worries! I’m not precisely up on sec stuff, so I appreciate the input — I’m a tech writer and osmose a lot of my information from listening to devs thrash out bugs. 🙂

        In this instance, I suspect that Penelope was simplifying the situation as much as possible for Louise — Louise might be a brilliant medical person, but she still has Alzheimer’s and Penelope is probably used to simplifying her work a LOT for non-tech audiences.

        If I ever put this out in book form, I’ll probably revisit the computer side and language! I wrote this originally… uhhhh, probably 6-7 years ago, and I’m sure it’s already outdated for a near-future piece!

        Reply

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