This story won Second Place in the DEF CON 27 Short Story Contest (2019)
The theme for DEF CON 27 was “Technology’s Promise”, and the stories needed to reflect this, and be connected to DEF CON in some way. I took a lighthearted approach in this story, while addressing a serious topic – that of authoritarian governments using technology to spy on and repress their citizens. We need look no further than the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang province, to see this in our world today. While I’m an optimist, I fear that new and forthcoming technologies will make it easier for repressive governments, and harder for ordinary citizens. Let’s hope that we’ll always have people like Min, Charlie, and BigHat to help us out.
“3bot, stop!” Charlie shouted, to no avail.
The small, four-legged bot willfully ignored the command as it leapt over Charlie’s arms, using its nimble paws to disconnect the tether and escape from the workbench. Charlie grimaced, then lumbered down the hallway of the farmhouse, boards creaking as he futilely ran in pursuit.
“3bot!!” he shouted, his command heard but unheeded as the silver and black bot scuttled through the dog flap in the back door, escaping outside. He stopped running and sighed. Minna had warned him not to use a synthesized terrier brain for the bot, and in retrospect she’d been right. A more obedient breed would have been a better choice.
Charlie quickly sat down and gently touched his right temple with two fingers, phasing in to the bot. His neural implant surfaced the background connection, replacing his own senses with those of 3bot. Some people could phase in without missing a beat, and even hold a conversation while doing so, but Charlie always needed to sit down, close his eyes, and fully concentrate.
< 3bot, status
This initialization command ensured the bot was stable, connected, and able to relinquish higher-level commands to Charlie.
> Status: Secure. No Danger. Network at 100%
> Location 43.192170 / -71.267133
> Temperature: 23.57C
> Power: 77%, Solar Charge @970 mW
> Systems: 97% Green, 3% maintenance required
3bot was in the side yard, next to the garden overlooking the pond, its small solar panels extended. Despite its terrier brain, 3bot was fully obedient and responsive when phased in; it was semiautonomous mode that often caused problems.
< 3bot, command
< Harvest parsnips from Garden plot 5A. Place into a bin.
> Command understood and confirmed. Estimated work time: 14 minutes. Risk level: Low
> 3bot, proceed
> As you wish
Charlie smiled at this little inside joke he’d programmed. No one else was privy to their direct connection, but nonetheless he got a small thrill from it, every time. Swiping his fingers forward along his temple, he phased out from 3bot, returning it to semiautonomous mode to begin its work. He returned to his work room, tools and equipment still scattered from the bot’s untimely escape, and sat down at his workstation.
Garden plot 5A was surrounded by NFC transceivers, monitoring and communicating with the nanobots embedded in the parsnips. With the help of a plant geneticist friend from nearby University of New Hampshire, Charlie had grafted the nanobots into the parsnips’ DNA. This allowed them to evade standard nano detection technology, as well as making them more resilient to defensive processes such as micro-EMP or irradiation.
Currently quiescent, Charlie had built into the bots a model for self-organization and communication. When they detected the proximity of kitchen bot (Class A, B, or C, they were all vulnerable), they’d swarm and exploit a vulnerability that Charlie had discovered in standard touch sensors. He smiled at this – a buffer overflow in an open source library – still a useful technique, even after all these years. The exploit would inject an executable payload into the kitchen bot, where it would then spread from bot to bot and form a peer network of communicating nodes. Oh, and the nanobots were safe for human consumption. Charlie had eaten some of them himself to validate their self-destruction routines, with no ill effects.
3bot was diligently harvesting the parsnips when Charlie’s security system alerted him to a visitor; a small silver car creeping up the gravel driveway. He stood up, quickly changed into a clean shirt, and dashed into the bathroom to brush his teeth. Minna was early!
He reached his front porch just as Minna was exiting the car, stretching in the summer sunshine.
“Hey Minna! Great to see you! How was traffic?”
“I don’t know” she replied, smiling and gesturing at the car with her thumb. “I let it drive, and napped most of the way up from Cambridge. I was up late on a videocall with Taiwan.” Her face darkened. “Another professor was arrested and sent to Beijing.”
Charlie approached her, and reached out to reassure her with a hug; she gave him a kiss on the cheek, then stepped back.
“How are the parsnips? We’ve got work to do!”
“They’re ready. 3bot is harvesting them right now. Nanobots are programmed, tested, and set to go. Honestly, I’m more concerned about your friend sneaking them into the kitchen in Las Vegas next week.”
“Don’t worry about that! He assured me – bots or no bots, commercial kitchens are as chaotic as ever. Piece of cake.”
Charlie nodded, and as if on cue, 3bot rounded the corner of the house, pulling a wheeled bin behind him. Minna smiled at the bot, then looked at Charlie.
“Help me load up the bag. I’ll take it back to Harvard with me, and ship it out in the morning.”
“Will do. Staying for dinner?”
She looked up him, brown eyes smiling.
“Sure. As long as you’re not serving parsnips!”
Like most people, Charlie had a kitchen bot to help him prepare and clean up meals. His bot had been through a lot – it’d been on the receiving end of dozens of hacks (both successful and unsuccessful), and he’d had to reflash it more times than he could remember.
He instructed the bot to prepare Pasta Primavera, and it began work while he poured two glasses of Pinot Grigio, and placed freshly baked bread and a Caprese salad on the table for Minna and himself. Minna picked up the wine bottle and read the label.
“Robot’s Leap Winery?” she asked. “Organically and ethically produced – no human wage labor.” Charlie nodded as they sipped the wine.
“This is now ‘a thing’ in wine. Proud replacement of human labor by bots. As a differentiator in the market!”
Minna sliced some bread and dipped it in the olive oil.
“Delicious! Is this botbread, or made with human wage labor?” she asked, teasing him.
“Handmade!” Charlie replied proudly. “But I didn’t get paid for it, so technically not wage labor. And don’t worry, you’re not exploiting me…at least not yet” he added, teasing her back.
Charlie thought for a moment, as Minna sampled the tomato and mozzarella.
“You know, we’re so lucky to be experiencing this kind of…it’s really a revolution in technology. The fact that we have these semi-intelligent bots to do all this work for us. Remember, our parents and grandparents had to do all this work themselves, or hire someone to do it.”
Minna nodded, then replied.
“This transition – in some academic circles they’re now referring to this as the techno-renaissance – is a major, major shift in economics and geopolitics. We’re really lucky that in this country we’ve handled this largely peacefully. The Neo-Luddites in the UK have been terribly violent.”
“And not just physically violent – the infosec teams there have had to deal with an unbelievable number of cyber attacks on bots and infrastructure. People have died!”
“That’s true, but think of all the lives saved by these bots – we no longer need humans for most dirty or dangerous work.”
“You don’t need to convince me, Minna! I’m a technologist, and I’ve devoted my career to making things safer, and accelerating its adoption.”
“True, but even with clear benefits, governments and large organizations can be slow to change. I’m still surprised at the rapidity with which industrialized nations moved from fossil fuels to the new clean-fusion powertech.”
Charlie shook his head, disagreeing.
“I’m not surprised, really, it’s just so much easier and cleaner. And the new high-temp superconductors gave us the battery capacity we desperately needed.” He gestured to the bot. “This thing only has to recharge once a month! But you’re right, it has been painful, and far from utopian. We handled the transition reasonably well in this country, although I suppose people in the Oil & Gas industries might disagree.”
Minna took another sip of her wine before replying.
“Well, the impact on the Middle East has been disastrous. None of the petro-states are truly functional today. The human toll has been brutal in the region.”
“I can’t disagree, Minna, as fabulous as our new technology is, tectonic shifts like this are painful. At least there aren’t any more wars about oil.”
“No, the wars are now being fought online. You know this better than anyone, right? You work to defend us against malicious actors, every day. And it’s exceptionally difficult. Why are people working so hard to steal?”
“It’s human nature – and I don’t mean that we’re inherently malicious. I mean that we’re inherently curious, and driven to grow, learn, and want more. Remember that old movie, Wall-E? None of us would be happy with that life of leisure, living without a purpose and fully catered to by our bots. There’s a reason that the people in that movie were physically becoming less and less human.”
“True, but there’s a downside to this ubiquitous technology, too. You know this, and it’s why we’re doing what we’re doing to crack China wide open.”
“Minna, I’m a real believer in you and this mission. There is no question that China is repressive and authoritarian, but…”
Minna sharply slammed her fist onto the table, startling both Charlie and 3bot.
“No buts! This is war! They’re torturing and killing people for their thoughts, and we’re going to stop them! Your hijacked kitchen bots – in almost every home across China – will finally enable secure, encrypted communications without government oversight. Amazing things are going to happen because of that! Because of us!!”
Charlie nodded, a little frightened and exhilarated of both Minna and what they were doing together.
Minna and Charlie took the same early morning flight from Boston to Vegas. The new generation of electric planes were quiet and roomy, although still staffed by human pilots and flight attendants who smiled and welcomed them aboard. Charlie looked out the window at the robotic ground crew; the baggage handlers’ union had finally acquiesced just a few years ago, and the rest of the outdoor workers had quickly followed suit. 3bot was safely stowed in the cargo hold, powered down and secured in a Faraday Cage. as required by safety regulations. Airlines were very strict about transporting bot, although they were still grappling with the risks posed by nanobots.
“Are you nervous about your DEF CON presentation, Minna?” She looked at him, then gently patted his hand.
“No, silly! I’m a visiting scholar at Harvard, for God’s sake – I give presentations all day long!”
“I know that, but being accepted to speak at DEF CON, especially in the Technology and Democracy Village, is a big deal!”
Minna laughed, and squeezed his hand. “I’m a big deal, too!”
They arrived in Las Vegas on time, and rapidly made their way through the queue and into an automated taxicab. Finally at a point where he could get online, Charlie quickly turned on his tablet and checked his systems.
“Are you sure your friend got the parsnips into the hotel kitchen?” Charlie asked. “I’m not seeing any pings to the C&C server”. The nanobots had a communications range of only a few meters, but the C&C server was, of course, reachable from anywhere, and any infected kitchen bots should have already reached out.
Minna frowned at him.
“Yes, he confirmed this morning, and even sent me a photo. He also confirmed that they use parsnips in the seafood stew! Could something have gone wrong with the nanos?”
“Unlikely. More likely that they haven’t been handled by a bot yet…or, there could have been some kind of unexpected defense mechanism.”
Now he was a bit worried. Charlie, whose day job was as a researcher and designer for a leading nanosecurity vendor, had crafted these bots to evade typical detection mechanisms. But nanodefense was a rapidly changing area, so it was indeed possible that they’d been detected and neutralized. Charlie reached out for Minna’s hand, although he wasn’t sure if he was reassuring her, or himself.
“Minna, we’ll figure this out. Even if we have a problem here in Las Vegas, we have a few weeks to adjust things before DEF CON China. That was the whole point of this practice mission here.” He smiled gently at her. “We got this.”
She nodded back at him, responding. “We got this.”
The newly opened Nautilus hotel, inexplicable (but perhaps not unexpected) in landlocked Nevada, was built to resemble a very, very large cruise ship – complete with a lagoon adjacent to the Strip, populated by acrobatic and entertaining neon botfish. The hourly shows were a huge tourist attraction, and the “ocean view” hotel rooms commanded a premium. Once Minna and Charlie checked in to their rooms, they agreed to meet up in an hour at the coffee shop on the “Lido Deck” (which was actually the 18th floor) near the swimming pool. They’d only been in the hotel for a few minutes, and the faux-nautical theme was already grating on Charlie, as were the staff’s tacky sailor uniforms.
Charlie quickly made his way down to the casino/restaurant level, and sat down on a bench outside the glassed-in kitchen featured at the “Captain’s Table” seafood restaurant. The black, spidery kitchen bots scuttled about, busy with the lunchtime rush. Charlie opened his computer and frowned — still no activity on the C&C. So he plugged in his high-sensitivity antenna, and launched the nanobot monitoring program.
Immediately, he was worried. The nanos were definitely unresponsive, but he wasn’t sure why – this wasn’t even their normal quiescent state. He decided to force them awake, and directed a cryptographically signed radio packet towards them. After just a few moments, he began seeing activity from the nanos, and he exhaled loudly. Charlie then performed some basic remote diagnostics – it appeared that around 80% of the bots were operational – and reactivated their infection program.
It didn’t make complete sense to him why, or how, they got into this state. He downloaded the logs from the bots – with limited storage, they didn’t retain very much. He’d look at it later.
Then, on his tablet he placed a “to go” order for seafood stew. The one with parsnips.
Twenty minutes later, he spotted Minna sitting at the coffee shop on the 18th floor (he refused to call it the “Lido Deck”). He walked over, bearing a cardboard container of tomato-and-saffron scented stew, two spoons, and a big smile. Minna looked up at him, smiling back in anticipation.
“We’re a go, sunshine!! Nanos worked, and we’ve already got 3 kitchen bots under our control!”
Minna gave Charlie a big hug, relieved and excited.
“So what was the problem?”
“I don’t know. I still need to figure that out. But I was able to reactivate the nanos from next to the kitchen, and then we were in business.”
Minna nodded at him.
Charlie nodded back, smiling.
“I guess this means I’m going to China!”
Minna’s presentation was the next morning, and Charlie made his way through the crowds and the other DEF CON Villages. There were an incredible variety of topics, including Social Engineering, AI, and a new SexBot track (“No demos!” read the sign, although Charlie wasn’t sure if the exclamation point was intended to express reassurance, or regret).
Minna’s talk was entitled “Technology in China: Enabling Autocracy or Priming a Democratic Explosion?”. She gave a historical overview, then updated the audience on the latest examples of how the Chinese government was using facial recognition, online tracking, and widespread automatic DNA analysis to track and repress their citizens. Charlie and Minna had had many conversation about this topic, yet he found it once again disheartening and infuriating. On an optimistic note, Minna was joined, via videoconference, by a dissident Chinese activist who hinted at some ongoing underground activity that was soon to come to fruition. Charlie nodded to himself, wondering if he was participating in Minna’s mission. She was very secretive about her Chinese contacts.
Charlie’s session was full to overflowing, with several hundred attendees. He hadn’t known what to expect, nor that “Semi-Autonomous and Self-Organizing Nanobots: Offense and Defense” would draw so many people. In his presentation he shared the latest attack techniques that they’d been seeing, and explained some of the the newest defense approaches being developed across the industry. As a lead defensive engineer on the nanobot team, Charlie had deep knowledge, and was reasonably well-known as an expert in this field. He shared a great deal of technical information about nanobots and attack techniques, but not once in his presentation did he mention parsnips.
“Now…it’s demo time!” Charlie announced, more nervous than he let on. “You may notice that I don’t have any bots – nano or otherwise – with me here on stage. That’s because I’m going to show something that’s…a bit unorthodox. Perhaps, even borderline illegal.” Charlie was sweating now, hoping that the demo worked, and also that he’d avoid legal trouble as a result. He’d been careful to target a single kitchen bot, and had it report a bogus mechanical problem so it’d be in the maintenance bay, rather than in a production kitchen.
“I apologize in advance, but I can’t share with you everything about this attack – I’m utilizing a technique that I have yet to responsibly disclose to the manufacturer. In fact, before yesterday, I wasn’t even 100% sure that it’d work!”
This elicited a few chuckles from the crowd, and a “WTF” gesture from Minna, sitting in the front row. Charlie smiled back, and gave her a wink.
“Using unsupervised nanobots, I was able to infect and escalate privileges on an in-use kitchen bot, here at the Nautilus. In fact, by combining several techniques, I’ve been able to obtain full control of a production bot.” Charlie accompanied this announcement by displaying the bot’s system control information on the screen. This announcement resulted in a modest round of applause and cheers from the audience.
“But wait, there’s more!” Charlie shouted, enjoying the showmanship. “Could someone open the back door to the conference room, please?”
Moments later someone obliged, revealing a six-legged kitchen bot, which immediately began scuttling down the conference room aisle. The bot was clearly marked “Nautilus Hotel”, and held aloft in one arm a tall drinking glass, filled with an icy pink slush and topped with a bright green umbrella. The bot carefully clambered up the steps onto the riser, not spilling a drop, and handed the drink to Charlie, who bowed and took a sip. The audience roared in approval. Charlie quickly turned to his computer, and entered a few commands to dismiss the bot and return it to its own control. It quickly departed for the bot maintenance bay, none the wiser that it had been hacked.
“Thank you!” Charlie shouted over the noise, as the audience begin filing out.“I’m available for questions”.
Minna approach him, smiling. Charlie went in for a hug, but instead of reciprocating, Minna punched him in the arm,
“You weren’t sure it was going to work!?” she asked.
“I did that for dramatic effect…mostly. I was pretty sure, but you never know.”
That evening, Minna introduced Charlie to BigHat, who, despite the handle, was bare-headed (and in fact, bald). Charlie didn’t inquire about the nickname.
As they sat down in comfortable chairs by the outdoor bar, Charlie was fascinated by BigHat’s colorful sleeve tattoos, gently morphing in geometric patterns.
“Nice nanotats!” Charlie said enthusiastically, holding both of BigHat’s wrists to admire them. “Wait, they’re symmetrical? How?”
“I thought you’d be interested! They actually use the UTC radio signal as a seed, so their geometric algorithm stays in synch. And they locally self-organize into patterns. I programmed them myself!”
“That’s a great idea! Beautiful job, BigHat.” Then, pausing. “Mind if I scan? Passive mode, I promise.”
BigHat nodded his okay, and Charlie quickly ran a small flat nanoprobe over BigHat’s arms. Charlie glanced quickly at the diagnostic readout, and nodded.
“Good choice of technology, but you need to patch your tattoos. Tonight. They’re vulnerable to a few active exploits, and this crowd loves to cause trouble!” he said, gesturing around them.
“Speaking of trouble” interjected Minna, “Where’s 3bot?”
Charlie looked around, unsurprised to see the bot was missing. He sighed, touched his temple, and phased in to the bot. Almost immediately he phased back out, laughing.
“He’s right there!”, pointing over to the edge of the lagoon.
3bot was at the water’s edge, excitedly zipping back-and-forth while a fluorescent botfish stared up at him from the water, darting in circles..
“It looks like he’s made a new friend. Can he swim?” asked BigHat.
Charlie and Minna look at each other.
“I told you not to…” Minna began, laughing with Charlie at this familiar dig.
“I know, I know!” Charlie replied, toasting Minna. “Big mistake”.
“Let’s get down to business.” Minna asserted. “BigHat will be helping us with the…payload for DEF CON China.”
BigHat nodded in response.
“I’m importing hundreds of pounds of VR gaming equipment – I can easily hide a few pounds of vegetables in there, shielded and cooled.” BigHat proclaimed confidently. “But I have to ask…why am I smuggling them into China?”
Minna placed her hand on BH’s arm, and replied, in full seriousness.
“For democracy and freedom, BigHat.”
They raised their glasses, and toasted.
Three humans with a purpose, armed with their wits, advanced technology, and parsnips.