Brushing against the destruction of the internet – Chapter 1

I started this project on 29th of May 2021, when I was actually staying in a house without any phone signal or WiFi network available, and the nearest connection was 700 metres away a short run down the road. I even had to make this journey just to jeck my WhatsApp messages or upload to Strava, and that is where I got the idea about using no service areas as an advantage from.
I will be posting this story gradually (chapter-by-chapter) to my tech blog, and you can subscribe below to get each new Chapter straight to your inbox.

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Chapter 1 – There really was no service

“No service, Please wait…” announced the phone that had been set down on a table in one of the bedrooms of this isolated cottage. This boring message had been on repeat (once every hour) since 8 p.m. last night when the phone had lost it’s connection to the internet. It was almost like this had been done on purpose, as there was no signal anywhere around here. But why?

It was their first morning in the house and they had arrived late the night before. Otto was a boy who was very into technology. He loved computers, coding, phones and a lot of other technical stuff. His mum and dad preferred the peace that was created by not having access tech, which was part of the reason why Otto had been taken here. “Are we going to go somewhere connected soon?” asked Otto. “I don’t think so.”, said his mum, “I think it’s good for you to be disconnected for a while.” “But I can sense that something big is wrong with the internet at the moment, something bad is happening. And to take me away from all of this now, just as I’m beginning to understand the problem?” “You’re just really desperate for a connection, and I’m sure you’ll get one soon.”, said his mum, “I’m sure the internet will be exactly as you left it when you connect again.” “I don’t think it will.” Otto replied. “I think you’re just trying to worry me so I will drive you to a connection or WiFi hotspot as fast as possible.” said his Mum.

So that was that, Otto was trapped (luckily only for now) in this tucked-away house with no connectivity or link to the outside world at all. The house was in the middle of nowhere, near some abandoned farm buildings. It was the only building that was inhabited within 2 miles. It was built out of solid thick stone which blocked any remaining signal, but there was no 7G outside anyway. It was just after breakfast, and Otto had gone up to his room to see what he could do about this no service issue. His portable router, which would have normally given him a connection wherever he went, was just lying on the desk. It would be no use now, even though it had 24 GB of data available, as it just said the same old sort of message that Otto was getting more and more fed up of by the second, “Logging in… Connecting service…”, which is what it had been supposedly doing for over 12 hours now, so it clearly wasn’t going to be any help. Was this a bigger plan than Otto could not even begin to imagine? Had somebody set up this house to be the only one available to book?

“Is mission “disconnect boy” complete?” asked the manager of the disconnection team. “Yes, and we think it has gone very well considering the amount of workarounds that that particular boy has up his sleeve.”, said one of the other people in the control centre. “Are you sure? We don’t want to run into any problems so late in the proceedings.” another man asked. “I’m sure it will go just as we planned it. We have been monitoring the boy’s WhatsApp status and he hasn’t received or sent anything in the past 12 hours, which is a good sign. We’ll do it at midnight though, just to be sure. We also have a backup plan, but I hope we won’t need to use it.” said the manager. “Okay, it looks like we’re good to go and put the next step of our plan into action.”

The room where this conversation had taken place was a massive control centre that could have belonged to GCHQ. In contrast to the isolated house there were over 20 networks. Although listing them all here would take up too much space, some names that your attention were particularly drawn to were “Disconnect_Mission_0384” and also another jokey one called “No Guest will ever come looking here for Guest WiFi” which sounded a bit odd. There were dials, nobs, computers, phones, charging points, screens and switches covering every available inch of the walls and ceiling. The floor also had pressure pads in it which meant that nobody could enter undetected or unauthorised. Several doors led out in different directions, but interestingly enough none of them seemed to lead out into the open. There were beeping computers and flashing screens whereever you looked. This place could have been cut out of an alien spaceship as it was very hard to tell where in the world a room like this could be, but it appeared to be on the outskirts of an enormous city, surrounded by more ordinary-looking warehouses. How could a building this big stay a secret? Was it being camouflaged? Surely the police would come to investigate sooner or later.

It was now 2 p.m. in the afternoon and not much had changed connection-wise. Otto had gone on a long, boring 3 hour walk with no signal anywhere, and a shorter walk to the nearest village which had been just as unsuccessful. However, one thing was finally looking up. There was a small outing planned to go and get a couple of bits and pieces from a local shop, which was in a town. Otto was very excited. “Can I come?” Otto asked hopefully. “Yes you can, as long as you don’t try and go anywhere extra just for that internet connection you seem to be desperately after because you don’t need it.” “Okay.” Otto replied, although he actually did need connection very urgently, more urgently than he could have guessed.

Twenty minutes later, Otto was sitting in the back of the car, frequently checking the signal strength on his phone. One bar of 3G had just appeared, and he was very excited. All his email were pinging in, but he had much more important stuff to worry about. He was now frantically tapping and swiping as hast as he could, as if something was wrong somewhere in his phone and he knew about it already. He was combing through the details of every one of his 186 installed apps as fast as he could in alfhabetical order. He was just about to give up as he was now at W, and that was when he found what he was looking for. The version of WhatsApp installed on his device appeared to be several years out of date, but WhatsApp versions expire after less than that time, so that couldn’t be right. That was still normal enough though, as there may have been a bug in the code or something, but he couldn’t let the feeling that something was wrong go, so he decided to check one more thing before ha let it go. He went to the App Store to check if the app could be updated, and that which when he saw the true size of the problem, the official WhatsApp app wasn’t even installed on his phone at all anymore. He checked the connection and access logs in the special app he had coded and it said that a remote device had established and successfully used a connection with his phone at 7:30 p.m. last night via a brute-force password hack, which was just before they entered the no signal desert. Otto hadn’t even thought of setting up an alert when someone was attacking his phone remotely, and it was so rare. These connection logs were normally just full of boring connections between his email app and the Gmail server, and other boring things like that. It said that they had transferred 109.36 MB of data onto his phone and deleted 73.39 MB of data from his phone, which was a big enough amount to upload a fake app and take away an official one.

He then checked WhatsApp again, more carefully this time and looking for any clues, and noticed that the interface on the copy of the app was not quite as accessible as the actual version, although whoever was behind this had done a very good job of hiding it. It certainly wasn’t WhatsApp, it was a very well developed copy of it which had been worked on for at least two years after being forked from the actual app when it was very young. Otto’s first thought was to simply uninstall it and install the official version, but the Uninstall option was greyed out. Someone had obviously put a lot of work into making sure that this mission (whatever it was) didn’t fail. It was just lucky that the tracking app or whatever it was hadn’t been granted full photo, camera and microphone access yet, which is what several billion iPhone users grant to WhatsApp the very first time they open it. Otto could try his best, but there was a big challenge ahead of him.

The control centre was empty now, except for one hardworking developer still sitting at a desk on a spiny chair, working on some crucial core code. It was getting dark outside the massive wall sized one-way windows, and the time that Otto had left to take action was slowly but surely ticking down. There were hundreds of lines of code, scrolling down the screen at a speed of about 100 per second. This code couldn’t even be put through a test run because it executed routines that were very dangerous, so it was having to be triple checked every time it was edited by anyone.

Meanwhile, Otto had been taken back to what he now nicknamed the “signal desert”. He had tried, and failed, to hide in the shop to stay connected longer. He knew something was wrong now, but would there but enough time? His mum also knew quite how desperate he was for connection. “Can I go for a quick run?” Otto asked later that evening. “I don’t see why not.”, his mum replied, “because there’s no signal for at least 5 miles.”

So Otto set off running along the road away from the house and towards the closest town (where the shop he had visited was). He didn’t intend to go back home until everything made sense. It took him about an hour and a half to reach an area where there were more cars, a 4G signal and a few shops. He was very tired and he wasn’t looking forward to doing it all again the other way. He guessed that this was the nearby town he was looking for. His plan was simple enough. He needed to find a Mac computer somewhere, take off the copy of WhatsApp and transfer it to a USB stick for further investigation and destruction, and then secure his phone and accounts against further hacking attempts.

It was 6:45 p.m. and the Sun had set now. He was beginning to give up when he saw a library, with a row of desks with computers behind them. It took him a precious 15 minutes to enter, join the queue and then book a computer for the next hour. When that was done he connected his phone to the computer via a USB cable, and began to carry out his plan.

“Warning! Connection established on target device. Primary tracking method deactivated. Attention needed.” popped up on one of the bigger screens in the control centre, in red text. One of the more experienced coders had been asked to deal with the issue. “It looks bad.”, he said “The boy we are aiming for tonight has just connected his phone to iTunes via a USB cable while connected to 4G, and transferred the project codenamed “Chat” off it. This is a scenario we didn’t consider. Anything could happen.” “But we considered everything.” said one of the less experienced coders in the room. “It seems we didn’t prepare for this particular one. We didn’t expect the boy we are trying to disconnect to go rogue and connect to a computer in a connected area so late in the plan.” said the coder who was frantically tapping away trying to work on the problem.

Otto had just managed the next step of his plan. He had extracted this seemingly-malicious copy of WhatsApp off his phone onto a USB stick, which should have isolated it completely. He then went through all the other apps and files on his phone and checked that nothing was wrong. He found one hidden app that had been installed from an unknown source, and deleted it. After that, he changed every single password he could think of. His Google, Apple, Microsoft, EE and Strava accounts all now had new complex passwords. Just to be sure, he also reset the MAC address of his phone in case something relating to identification by MAC address was planned. He just didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew it was big, urgent and hard to solve.

The next part of his plan wasn’t too difficult either. He was planning to change his phone number, as this was one of the key pieces of ID which could be used for tracking devices. Otto thought that the people behind whatever this was expected him to press the “Change number” button in their app if he did change his number in this small period of time, but he wasn’t planning to do that, he was planning to trick them into thinking that the old number was still active.

When he arrived at the EE shop the sky was pitch black. It was now 7:47 p.m., and his mum would probably be getting very worried. He had to get on. He was wondering if someone was going to try something late tonight, as whatever hacking plan the people behind this app had would be discovered if they waited too long. He had to complete his plan now. There were rows and rows of different types of sim cards on the walls of the shop. The staff looked a bit shocked to see a stressed, panting boy in here just as they were packing up, as changing your phone number or contract wasn’t normally something you would rush. “Can I buy a pay-as-you-go sim card with £10 credit please?” Otto asked the shop assistant. “I think you’re just in time.”, she said, “and would you like your number transferred over?” “No thank you.” Otto said, although he wanted to say a lot more but he knew there was no point. He paid for the sim card and left the shop. He was planning to transfer the infected app to his old phone with his old number and old password, which would hopefully make it a massive beacon to track. He was then planning to put his old phone somewhere random and see what happened next.

“And can you just go through all the details one last time?” asked one of the men in the tracking and retrieval squad who were now making their way out of the control centre and into a huge underground car park where a van waited for them. “Definitely.” said one of the other people involved, “We just park up relatively near to this house, dig a tunnel underneath and take the boy out. The boy’s phone will hopefully serve as a tracker once we give it WiFi unless the boy has done something funny with it. It will tell us the exact room he is in so we don’t have to disturb anybody else (if it’s working properly).” “Thank you. Of course that’s the plan, how could I have forgotten?”

The van drove out of the car park as the huge entrance door rumbled shut behind it. It was starting a long journey which may be the amount of hours Otto has left with his family unless Otto’s plan works out.

Otto had left the USB stick plugged into the computer he had used for a reason, and hoped that nobody would unplug it. He ran back to his house and reached it at 9:33 p.m., and by this time he was very tired. “Where have you been?” asked his mum. “Oh, nothing much, just a bit longer run than expected.” “I doubt you were running the whole time.” said his mum, “If you keep this up I will have to lock the doors and leave you behind here every day.” “I’m sorry, I just got distracted.” Otto replied.

Otto wasn’t going to sleep until midnight, as that was the primary time of night when plans like this may be carried out. His plan was to wait until then, and then to go to sleep if nothing happened, and do his best to defend himself if something did.

As soon as his mum and dad had gone downstairs, Otto got out of bed. He knew what a common attack on a phone would be. A hacker would bring a router that was coded to change it’s name very often to common things like “_The Cloud” and “O2 Wifi” and hope to get lucky and end up with the target’s phone on an infected network where it could be hacked. To start with, he was going to have WiFi off on his actual phone, and have it on on his old phone which he had wiped to factory settings. He was going to lay a false trail if anyone came looking. He made one last trip out of the house that night, and it was to an abandoned building 750 metres away, where he left his old phone, which had his old number and MAC address too.

The van was travelling at high speed on one of the largest motorways in the country, the M25. It would turn off soon and head off into the middle of nowhere, which was where this isolated house was. “Is our backup plan in place?” asked the leader of this particular mission. “Yes, we just fire hundreds of public well-known networks at the phone such as some of the places near the boy’s house and school, and see which one gets us connected. We then just re-install our tracking app via WiFi and we’re good to go.” “Okay, let’s do this.” said one of the other people involved.

Otto was lying awake in his bed, wondering if he was making this up or whether something really would happen. He only had 1 hour, 38 minutes and 12 seconds left. He was going to just have to wait and see.

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