We rented office space in a converted warehouse somewhere near Dekalb Ave. There were five writer/editors working for The Edge, which was just about as many people breathing down my neck and telling me to “summarize this better” as I could handle. Terrence and I believed in the project once we were totally sure Tor Encryption could successfully keep our communications secure. The concept was simple; we wanted to be the front page news source of the deep web. I originally had an open-source, Wikipedia style format in mind, but Terrence was keen to find the potential for capital extraction. At first, I thought a subscription service was a dumb, greedy idea. Who the fuck pays for news? Apparently, when your news is vital enough for a certain industry, it becomes valuable. I didn’t realize our clientele would be from the very world we reported on. Hackers, scammers, Chinese coders and the like all subscribed to our newsletter for a small fee of $20 a month. For this payment, they received weekly updates on the state of deep tech. New security exploits, government anti-hacking operations, servers getting seized in New Zealand, anything that we deemed important to the audience. And how could we tell it was important?
“Message boards!” Terrence yelled to us one meeting, pointing to a line on a Powerpoint projection casting a phallic shadow across the digital screen. “Everything we need to know about anything is on those fucking message boards!”
The day when we signed all the papers legally making The Edge our personally run LLC, I remember Terrence leaning over to me and saying, “I don’t know how you take the time to read all that nonsense, but we can make something legit out of this.”
A few months of litigation later, The Edge was born. Within three years, we regularly got somewhere in the neighborhood of two million visits on the site per day. Terrence was our CFO, and before I’d met him, I’d only heard stories at parties of mutual friends from our college class or girls I’d slept with that he’d fucked at some point or another. Terrence made everyone hate him, but somehow, some way, you always seemed to find yourself in a position where you needed him. He wore those skinny-fit suits and moosed his hair in a way that communicated, “I contracted multiple STD’s in business school,” and “I still pay dues to my fraternity” simultaneously. Even though we were from two different worlds, he and I still worked together in a sort of natural harmony that could never be explained. He kept the money coming in to fund The Edge, and I wrote the content. So for three years, I put up with some of the most annoying small talk and pseudo-scientific quips any one man could manage.
Terrence had a penchant for choosing the focus of our topics. Even though he wasn’t a writer, he certainly had a knack for telling what kinds of things people were interested in reading about. When we were in our weekly staff meeting, he took time to summarize my new series of articles about internet security. “We’ve got to get more stories out like Jeb’s,” he said, standing next me and pointing to the traffic numbers that were written on a white board he’d rolled out in front of us. “Jeb might be a skinny, bald weirdo, but he’s the only writer bringing in any traffic worth talking about. Right now, he’s a fucking stud.”
Stephanie, a newer writer who’d just moved to the city from rural Pennsylviana, foolishly raised her hand. “What else can we add to Jeb’s series?”
Terrence looked up and crossed his arms, pretending to think for a moment, “If anyone here can think of something that can sum up the whole, internet-security-government-spying-Google-selling-your-information wave, we just might be able to justify our existence. Until then, no one here gets to write on any other topic. No more China shit; no one cares. We’re a subscription service people, not the fucking BBC.” We spent the rest of the meeting dissecting my articles, looking for something we could expand on and use to ‘justify our existence’.
I wasn’t sure if I could find a story for our editorials page that could sum up the whole internet-security-government-spying-Google-selling-your-information wave. I didn’t think it was a wave; it was more like a total shift in the climate. My only source into the most current developments on the subject was an out-of-work CIA contractor-turned-hacker named Jacob Hartman. He’d given me a large enough window of insight into the scale of the embedded JPEG file encryption technique.
Hartman was an uptown shut in. A man who I’d met through a chance inquiry into some government emails anonymous users on a scrape-service were able to cough up for me. He’d been officially unemployed since 2008, but his name still came up in a few internal memos mentioning his work as an intelligence asset during espionage on Chinese government funded encryption operations. Jacob was an ex-keyboard-for-hire who I could tell had made something of a success of himself in his time. But by the time I’d contacted him, his days of steady work were long behind him, and Jacob started selling secrets to pay the bills. In his uptown apartment on the twelfth floor of an upscale complex on the Upper West, I questioned him as he connected more extension wire into his small array of servers.
“Everything you told me checked out,” I said to him.
“You’re welcome. I read the article on The Edge. Nice work.”
“Couldn’t have done it without you though. The second half of your fee should’ve been wired to you.”
“I got the notification.” Jacob stood up and wiped the accumulating sweat off of his forehead and pushed his falling hair out of his eyes. Rings of perspiration stained his dark blue shirt and glazed his skin. “So, you’re here for congratulations?”
“No, not exactly. I’m planning on writing a follow-up piece, you know, something to really tie it together.”
“You want more information?”
“Whatever else you can spare.”
“That’ll cost you.” Jacob walked past me and into his tiny kitchen. He took out a glass and got a water purifier from the fridge. Without asking me if I wanted anything, Jacob poured himself a glass of cold water.
“I’ll pay you same as before. But I need a serious lead, no kibbles and bits.”
“If I could get you a serious lead, could we talk about double?” Jacob asked between gulps.
“That’d have to be a seriously serious lead,” I replied. “And even then I probably can’t promise double.”
Jacob finished the glass of water. “Have you heard of SSL, Several Samples Later?”
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s a Tor message board. You can only get the hyperlink once in a while, it’s not really shared. There are some threads on there you might find interesting.”
“Send me the link.”
“I need half now.”
“For a hyperlink? You’ll get it all when I find something worth my time. What’s been on there lately?”
Jacob sat down at his desk and opened his laptop. The monitor displayed his tor browser, in which he pasted a link into the address bar. The screen loaded to a message board, much like a Reddit or a 4chan board. “This is a mirror. I haven’t had access to the real thing for about a year.”
I looked over Jacob’s shoulder, attempting to discern what I was seeing. The variation in topics ranged in anything, from how to email your girlfriends nudes to her father without the sender being traced back, to debates about whether or not a computer could count to four quadrillions.
“This is like a B board for people who think B is too layman.”
“That’s why I think having access to it might be helpful. There are a few cliques that use SSL as their main mode of communicating.”
“I heard Anonymous hopped on about a month ago. Hackers who get paid by the Triads used it for a while, and a couple Pedo groups who only talk in Dutch.”
“No government contractors? No spies?”
“Well, they wouldn’t be very good if I could tell who they were just by reading the threads. Look into it yourself.” Jacob stood up and walked to the other side of his small apartment and started sifting through a messy stack of opened cardboard boxes. “There’s a breakdown of the tradecraft techniques that I used to have to look out for. That’ll help.” I watched Jacob sweat as he searched for something in a stack of paper.
“You want to turn on the AC?” I commented, feeling the sweat collect under my pits and around my collar.
“Too much money.”
“Ah,” I got up and opened his already cracked window. I’d only met with him a couple of times, but everything Jacob did always looked frantic, like he was under a time limit. “How’d you get started hacking?”
“Why? Am I the next subject of one your stories?” Jacob turned around and asked, slightly excited.
“No, I’m just curious.”
“Well, I’m not exactly a hacker anymore. And I hate that word. I was a deep-surfer. I went on tor and worked for anyone that would give me a job.”
“Stealing information.” I clarified.
“Or protecting it. I was impartial.”
“What made you want to do it? Be a deep-surfer?”
“What made you want to be a journalist?”
“Really?” Jacob replied, laughing. “Hell of a career choice if you’re after money.”
“I’m not very smart.”
“I guess not.”
“I wanted to make money off of writing. I didn’t want to make money doing just anything.”
“No, no I get it.” He stopped sifting through papers when he came across a packet of official looking documents. “Here,” he walked over and handed it to me. “Should help you translate.”
“Thanks,” I walked over to the door. “So, why deep-surfing?”
Jacob shrugged. “I dropped out of school because I was a junkie. I spent a lot of time not seeing anyone, not being seen.” He sat down on his computer chair. “I used the dark markets to get drugs, so I got used to being on there a lot. Became a little obsessed I guess. Then I started making money, and… here I am.”
“Here I am,” Jacob said again and then looked around his apartment.
“Thanks for everything; you’ll get your money within the week,” I said. He nodded to me as I walked out.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Adam’s writing, be sure to check out his previously featured works with Big Easy Magazine here! Also, be sure to read some of our other short fiction. This includes works from Nolan Storey, Margaret Marley, Camille Goering and Fritz Westenberger!