Tales from the Crypt

I’m working on an encryption algorithm for an accounting firm that’s based on something I used during a stint in [undisclosed country] a while back. I never thought I would end up recycling it. This happened at a time when I was careless about personal security–never wearing issued ballistics vests and Kevlar helmets, or taking safety precautions with my electronic communications–because I was a bit of renegade (a.k.a. idiot).

I was forced to write my own encryption algorithm when I had an issue with a fixer–the life-saving people journalists work with–during one particular assignment. Fixers are translators, drivers, liaisons and, sometimes, bodyguards as well (the guy I worked with drove around with an AK-47 precariously wedged between the center console and my seat), all rolled in one.

Well, I had two fixers on this particular assignment: one I’ve worked with before and became a good friend, and another who was brand new on the team. The latter passed a basic background check that, in hindsight, should’ve been more thorough.

Well, my newspaper’s security chief did a second check, and it turned out the fixer was affiliated with a local mafia, and that those mobsters were supplying arms to a terrorist group. Now, this group is Minor League and they weren’t really successful at anything for much of their existence except assassinating a local army general back in the 90s. However, they were fond of kidnapping foreigners, particularly journalists, for ransom. That was their bread & butter.

So I suggested creating our own encryption package and using that to communicate vital sensitive information with “the inner-circle.” All the while, I kept my communications with the shady fixer at a basic level (e.g. where and when to pick me up for an interview). We didn’t want to fire him then and there, because the local police got involved and wanted to capture him and any accomplices in the act of conspiracy. So I fed him information on my whereabouts to see if anyone else would follow us to those locations.

It turned out some fishies went after our bait and confirmed our suspicions. At one point, I was doing surveillance on my elusive, interview-shy subjects (for the actual investigative article I was working on) while a couple of suspicious dudes in an old tinted up Toyota van were doing surveillance on me, and the police was doing surveillance on them. We looked like a chain of stalkers.

Eventually, nothing happened. We didn’t get any hard evidence of conspiracies to kidnap my dumb ass. I got my story. I flew back to the States and that was that. However, from that day forward, I became more active in creating my own encryption algorithms and even experimented with my own VPN, which I now do on the side for generous amounts of $$$.

The morals of the story are:

1. It’s good to be paranoid sometimes.

2. Don’t discard old ideas. Save them. You never know when you might use them for a totally different purpose.

3. Learn programming and the fundamentals of software engineering. Enroll in coding bootcamps. There are a lot of them that offer flexible online courses, but I recommend finding one in your area so that you can get hands-on classroom experience.

4. Learn as many different things as your brain can handle. Always expand your knowledge library.