Last night I dropped by Seattle’s Town Hall to see Marc Goodman’s talk on his newly released compendium of computer crimes, Future Crimes: Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It (Random House/Doubleday, 2015). I didn’t expect, but hoped that there might be discussion of the use of computer crime to advance real estate ventures. Nor is it included in Future Crimes, so far as I can see, but I picked up a copy of the book last night and started to thumb through it at home.
Future Crimes is a survey of the vast criminal cyber-terrain that lies ahead of us as “smart” devices take over our world. Goodman’s belief is that this is the terrain onto which we’ve already crossed, the future that is already here.
The wisdom that Goodman shares is based on a dictum of two parts. The first of these aligns with my own appropriation, “All Your Device Are Belong To Us.” In Goodman’s words, More connections to more devices means more vulnerabilities.
Goodman offers an example of the criminal as early adopter of technology in the pairing of a pager and an early mobile phone. In the days of the drug wars back in the 1990s, pagers figured prominently in news accounts of drug deals and stories about grade school kids packing pagers and making playground deals at the bidding of some ghetto drug king. Even then, Nike brand shoes were sometimes involved, being the reward of the enterprising child criminal cum up-and-coming drug dealer. Devices are proliferating faster than feature creep, from refrigerators so “smart” that they not only order milk from the store when the carton is empty but give entry to the hacker who wants access to your wireless network, to pacemakers like the one for which Cheney’s doctor disabled wireless access to secure the safety of the vice-presidency.
The second part of Goodman’s dictum is If you control the code, you control the world. Goodman described spyware and hackware like the Blackshades remote access tool (RAT) with a command-and-control panel that offers a full menu of hack tasks. With a single click, you can run a keystroker on a target device, get user passwords, or lock files and demand a ransom to unlock them. According to a Mother Jones article, the Blackshades RAT even comes with a “prepared script” for the ransom note. The article cites Krebson Security’s comment that the application was “marketed principally for buyers who wouldn’t know how to hack their way out of a paper bag.” (All About Blackshades, the Malware That Lets Hackers Watch You Through Your Webcam, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/05/blackshades-malware-remote-access-webcam-fbi) Remembering how a Microsoft friend told me at the outset of my mobbing that many Internet bots—rootkits—were literally kits, it’s easy to see how spyware and tools like the Blackshades malware application would be suited to criminal ventures in real estate by those more experienced with wrangling deals than code.
Goodman compares the rise of hackware to the software distribution model known as Software as a Service, or “SaaS.” This reminded me of the mobbers’ self-conscious quip that theirs is a “shadow service.” For real estate mobbing, perhaps it would be Bullying as a Service (BaaS) or Mobbing as a Service (Maas or enMaas).
Another thing that Goodman discussed was the evolution of organized crime into highly technical organizations that parallel technology firms or into distributed flash-hack heists across a network of monetized nodes. The pinnacle of this evolution is national or worldwide feats of crime accomplished by a rogue force of one. This is the definitive case of the second part of the dictum, If you control the code you control the world.
But when hacking crimes attain levels of skill and daring so towering that a worldwide heist is the feat of one, why would a hacker waste time in shadow service to real estate where the criminal would labor against a few victims, or even just the one, for limited rewards?
I’ve come back to this question numerous times, speculating on the extent to which the hacking in my own mobbing has relied on hoaxes, kits or tricks. I’ve considered that a network of real estate mobbers might rely on the services of a few hackers or a single centralized hacking service, or use RATs like the Blackshades malware. It seemed likely that the Comcast cable line I used to share with one of the mobbing houses could have been the media used to inspect my port 80 traffic with a packet sniffer like WireShark. The use of packet sniffers is clandestine and difficult to detect. Besides, if the victim is monitored, by the time she becomes suspicious and takes steps to find out who’s on her network, you can just shut WireShark down. And even camfecting or keystroking could be informative. With a mobbing in full force for going on two years, why would a hacker bother? Between insecure communications protocols like 802.11 (wifi) and devices architected as though the world is innocent, it’s not like there’s no money to be made elsewhere. Maybe, when a mobbing goes as it should, it’s of limited duration and even the high risks of attempting to criminally harass someone out of their home are constrained. And winding up the victim for the hoaxes could, I suppose, be entertaining for the black hat hacker who likes that sort of thing. Maybe having a stable income working for real estate and doing a mobbing every now and again as a sideline or a method of property acquisition seems less “criminal” than, say, making a living off of black hat intrusions in the land of the NSA. Why not? Working for a powerful industry well tooled with attorneys and “risk managers” could provide a valuable shield in a career of uncertainty.
Let’s backtrack and take a second look at the enMaaS distribution model of mobbing inspired by Marc Goodman’s comments on the application of SaaS to the black hats. It could be that enMass scales to the requirements of a gentrifying neighborhood, performing just-in-time clearings for the planning process, lot by lot.
We’ll use my neighborhood in Seattle, where I am a legal tenant who faithfully pays my rent and tends to my home. In this lakeside enclave, a small group of residential developers have been working their way up and down the street with real estate speculators and construction crews in their tow, wrangling a continuous feed of deals and setting up permitting and construction one house at a time.
This is a game that the independent developer can get into. In addition to the enMaas model’s appropriateness to acquisition of property by an offer you can’t refuse or wheels greased by a good old-fashioned neighborhood bullying, the bullying of the many to the one allows for profiteering without witnesses. With the enMaas model of residential clearing and clearing by smearing, the resident of the acquired property is scapegoated out of a home in a manner that satisfies the bloodlust of the neighborhood watch while silencing them with their own complicity. The enMaas model allows for the greatest level of intimidation by local administration of the short-range technologies of mobbing—the first of these the watchfulness embodied by the nosy neighbor of the neighborhood watch. The surround system of mobbing allows harassers and hackers to ply their trades from the occupied territories of nearby acquisitions to evict with shortened and hidden attack vectors. enMaas distributes forced evictions over a gentrifying residential neighborhood at a pace that does not draw attention, yet is timed to accommodate the inevitable delays of the permitting and scheduling process before construction unfolds. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a million-dollar neighborhood. By the time the developer who mobs finishes the lot up the street, the mobbers will have your lot cleared for his next project.
No doubt the houses built will all be “smart” and equipped with devices using the latest (and least secure) wireless and Bluetooth technologies. In bedroom communities for Microsoft with Bill Gates’ Mercer Island home an early example, a “smart” home can fetch a high price. What’s more, when it’s time to turn over the property a few decades down the road, a smart house will give your own mobbers a great platform for the surround system of enMaaS mobbing and in-home harassment. Your floor-to-ceiling windows will become sheets of distributed harassment from the directional speakers of the mobbers hiding next door (Holosonics Audio Splotlight, https://holosonics.com/content/6Technology or Wireless Resonating Speakers Turn Any Flat Surface Into Your Neighbor’s Worst Nightmare, http://www.core77.com/posts/23718/Wireless-Resonating-Speakers-Turn-Any-Flat-Surface-Into-Your-Neighbors-Worst-Nightmare), truckloads of milk will spoil on your steps after Amazon delivers them within sixty minutes of the request made by your hacked smart refrigerator (Out of Milk? LG’s New Smart Fridge Will Let You Know, http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/gift-guide/out-milk-lgs-new-smart-fridge-will-let-you-know-n99531), and arson may be what clears your lot when mobbers hack into your printer and set the paper supply on fire (Printers Can Be Hacked to Catch Fire, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/printers-can-be-hacked-to-catch-fire/). More than practical, a “smart” home is advance provisioning for the next mob.
As a tenant who is a victim of real estate mobbing, I have found it difficult to get help by explaining to authorities that if my landlords cannot keep a good tenant, they may be forced to sell to the developer whose offer they turned down before the onset of the mob. People are reluctant to acknowledge the value of the tenant in real estate and commerce, and legal and police authorities seem to discard the possibility of motives that are not immediately clear. Police and attorneys have been skeptical when I have tried to explain the situation as I have experienced it. “You don’t own the house,” they bluntly remind.
Why would a tenant be harassed if the goal is the property? Because the owner does not want to sell at the offered price and may not want to sell at all.
For the owner, it may be easiest to blame the tenant for “not getting along” with the neighbors and sacrifice a good tenant to harassment before being surprised by a lowball offer and a threat that not only will future tenants be harassed but intimations will be made that the owner is the sole harasser.
For the investor, tenant harassment is a better, more viable option than an adverse possession lawsuit. It’s also less messy than a horse’s head in the bed and appears to be a crime less likely to be charged. Construction is expensive, sales unpredictable and profit margins may seem all too slim, certainly in a market where bubbles have burst and are forecast to burst again.
Tenants lack economic and political power. More to the point, they are not indemnified with the home owners insurance used to fight adverse possession lawsuits and stave off tortious interference into contractual rights from neighbors. Criminal real estate speculators are probably correct in believing that most tenants will move in the face of harassment, and quick.
In anti-renter neighborhoods like my own, the rights of the renter are not simply ignored but actively disparaged. Harassment does double-duty as a lesson in gender to the unmarried woman who dares to stand alone with her rights and her values. The belief that a tenant will not be harassed because she has no “skin in the game” is simply wrong. A legal tenant holds a contract to lease her home. This is of value. This is skin in the game.
Owners who fear losing their shirts in civil lawsuits and who cannot keep a tenant willing to brave a nasty neighborhood will capitulate and sell. Owners with tenants whose tenancies are virtually criminalized by false accusations and by attempts at clearing by smearing (and these are words I have heard my harassers say, not some cute turn of phrase of my own) may turn against the tenant who once seemed an asset but now has been made by acquisitive neighbors to seem not only a liability but a criminal yet to be exposed.
Powerful industries made up of speculators and investors who bank on uncertainty and danger may well accept the shadow services that hackers provide as appropriate for their high-risk ventures. They may even seek to increase profits and outsource risk by inviting real estate mobbers into a neighborhood to clear the lots they want for a portion of the profits. Real estate agents who make a percentage on sales could broker deals bringing mobbers into the neighborhood to clear properties adjacent to the houses they are sold, perhaps with the agreement that the same agents have the opportunity to sell the mobbing houses a second time as well as selling the house that is built on the lot acquired through the mobbers’ bad acts. As those mobbing me have said to me in the harassment again and again, “You’re bad for my business” and “We want to build on it.”
We accept theories that hackers do things because they can. Lacking the skills that we’re now trying to train into the ranks of penetration testers, we forgive deliberate breaches of our most confidential and secure systems when hackers explain away their actions by saying that they are exposing vulnerabilities. We need to examine our willingness to accept hacking as entertainment—as crime without motive—lest we overlook more significant possibilities. The theory that a collective attack perpetrated by a group of people who are clearly involved in real estate speculation on a single tenant is purely coincidental and without a financial motive is ludicrous. Moreover, a theory of entertainment is ridiculous as explanation for criminal acts like the use of a software-defined or CB radio to transmit a constant stream of harassment onto a neighbor’s speakers, hacking the neighbor’s wi-fi, monitoring their port 80 traffic, intercepting their phone calls, or claiming in court that you won’t bring children into the world if your neighbor continues to reside next door. A group of people who coordinate in a clandestine effort to make money by “turning over” houses in the neighborhood for development constitute an organized crime that is likely racketeering.
Future Crimes tells the story of new parents seeking to do what good parents do, to protect their child even from a distance and over the Internet by using a baby monitor. Designed with robust capabilities, baby monitors offer two-way audio and cameras that follow movement with pan, tilt and zoom. Goodman relates the harrowing account of Heather Schreck of Cincinnati, who woke to the sound of a strange man’s voice yelling at her baby over the moving camera of the monitor, “Wake up, baby, wake up!” (p. 307) In another of numerous such incidents, a Houston family woke to the sound of their two-year-old being called by name and demanded to “[w]ake up…you little slut!” (Ibid). We acknowledge the maliciousness of the act but, perhaps because of our inability to see or understand all of the picture, our failure to comprehend the complexity of motive, or our discomfort with its meaning, we ignore the possibility that there may be more there than meets the eye.
Hacking is frightening to people. It is the unseen and the unknown, it defames, it intimidates, it ridicules and robs. A hacked home can be made to seem like a haunted house and a haunted house, unattractive to buyers, must be razed and rebuilt. Individuals and families who are violated by hacking may throw out the offending device and question the safety of their homes. Virtual intrusions may be experienced as invasions of the home in which the symbolic crossing of the threshold is followed by imminent physical threat. Indeed, the movie-style “trailer” that Random House made for Future Crimes ends with a terrorized woman fleeing her “smart” home in much the same way that a woman who does not recognize the true motive behind the mob might flee her home, abandoning it to the very speculators using dirty tricks to force her to sell.
Hacking is one way to make a home inhabitable.