Pass The Parcel

Entry by: Paul McDermott

24th December 2015
Pass the Parcel

“No, Dave, it’s not just a game for the office Christmas party! There’s something seriously wrong with these figures!”
“But Phil, we’re talking about fourteen thousand people who suddenly discover they’ve disappeared from the Electoral Rolls, and can’t vote – either locally or when Smartypants chucks in the towel and calls a General Election?
“I’d say it’s got to be a glitch: but if it is, I’m damned if I can find it!”
Brian Stanley, IT guru, resident genius and consultant to the LibDem group on Liverpool City Council, admitting he couldn’t ID a computer problem? Unheard of …”
"We’re talking significant numbers here.” Ian broke in. “It could be a ward the size of Childwall, for example: can you imagine the ruckus it’d cause if fourteen thou votes ‘disappeared’ there?”
“What’s the population figures for Liverpool, someone? What percent is fourteen thou?” Dave asked. Brian punched a few keys.
“Total, coppers short of four hundred and eighty thou. Take out the numbers too young to vote, you’re talking about two hundred thou: about seven-eight percent of the electorate with no vote, that’s my guesstimate.”
“Thanks, Bri.” Dave looked around the room.
“This info stays with us. We have to find out if it’s genuine, and if it is we need to find out how it happened. If someone’s trying to rig the system, they need to be stopped!”
Ian leaned forward.
“If that’s the case, this won’t be an isolated incident. Brian, is there any way you can check if this is genuine? Because if someone’s trying to rig the system, as Dave said, they’re going to be working on a much grander scale – nationally, to do any significant damage!”
“To do that, they must be close to the national database, with the highest security clearance possible … and the knowledge to slip a virus of some sort into the system.”
Brian’s hands danced on the console. He didn’t even glance at the monitor screen, which was in a seemingly permanent state of flux as one column of data figures gobbled up the previous screen and scrolled ever onwards.
Abruptly the screen froze. Brian stared at it and whistled softly.
“This guy’s good – I mean, his skills, not his morals! He’s bounced this all round the world, probably more than once – and I mean that literally! – but I’ve isolated an IP address. It definitely originated in the UK: that’s all I can be certain of …”
“Great!” moaned Phil “How many million PC terminals do we have to check?”
“Hey, it could have been started anywhere in the world! At least we can treat it as a purely British problem, not a hack by some international madman or terrorist!”
Brian’s statement caused several sharp intakes of breath. This was an aspect of the problem which hadn’t occurred to any of them. Suddenly, the possibility of a determined cyber-attack rather than ‘parochial’ mischief by a bored teenager hyped up on energy drinks in a darkened suburban bedroom didn’t seem completely out of the question.
“C’mon: out of here – alluv yiz!”
Brian was flying: he could have been on a different planet. His momentary lapse into the broadest imaginable Scouse was all the encouragement his friends needed, leaving him to tackle the IT monster he knew so well.
There were rumours that Brian had built his first computer from a cannibalised electric typewriter and spare parts he’d scrounged from broken trannies, or grudgingly bought from Radio Shack and/or second hand shops. Details – in particular, an approximate date for the genesis of the original prototype – were somewhat vague, but every account agreed that he’d had to wait a number of years before someone developed a computer capable of receiving the information Brian had archived away, confirmation that data could be transmitted electronically.
The atmosphere in the airtight Committee Room didn’t quite roil out of the door when they opened it, nor did it flood around their ankles like raw sewage from a ruptured drain, but it definitely hubbled and bubbled. Brian had pulled an all-nighter: a score of coffee cups containing varying amounts of cold black rocket fuel testified to this. Predictably, they were all stacked on a table at the far end of the room, away from the laptop: to Brian, eating or drinking anywhere close to a PC was a hanging offence.
“From the look on your face, I don’t have to ask if you’ve got something for us: but can you explain it in words us mere mortals have a chance of understanding?”
Brian grinned: all-nighter or no all-nighter, he positively hummed with energy, though that could also have been the result of caffeine-induced euphoria.
“I tracked this incident back to an IP address which is registered to an MOA in Liver…”
“Whoa! No techie stuff, Brian! What’s MOA?”
“Not techie, Dave! Not even an IT phrase! MOA means ‘Multi Occupancy Accommodation’ – when a landlord buys a property and rents it out room by room, usually to students.”
“Point is” Brian paused and made sure he had everyone’s full attention.
“Point is, the law was changed recently. It’s now the Landlord – not the individual Tenant – who’s responsible for registering the number of people living at that address. And if he doesn’t (or can’t be bothered), the tenant’s name and details won’t appear on the Electoral Roll, and they don’t get a vote in any elections: local or national. And that’s where fourteen thousand votes in Liverpool got lost.”
“Fourteen thousand we know about” Ian corrected. “So the problem could be a damned sight worse than it appears, even locally. On a national scale …”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about: it could be catastrophic!” Dave concluded.
“If it is widespread …” Phil murmured.
“And deliberate!” Ian insisted
“That makes it political dynamite, and we’ve no chance of copping whoever’s behind it. They know they’re breaking the law, they’ll have covered their tracks far too well …”
“Sez you!” Brian growled. “Now, sod off the lorrayiz: gimme some space …!”
He flung himself back onto his seat. The three non-combatants could almost hear and see an invisible hermetically sealed three-ton shutter slam into the worn floorboards of the room, separating them from Brian and his laptop, leaving them with no real choice.
“We fight fire with fire.”
No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Totally out of character, Brian was deadly serious, and everyone tensed waiting for him to elaborate.
“I managed to analyse how the virus was concocted: it was pretty sophisticated, someone really did know what he was doing, but I cracked it. After that, it was easy enough to ‘reverse technology’ and come up with something I believe will counter it …”
“You’ve created a … what? An Antivirus?” Dave breathed.
“That’s as good a name for it as anything else: if it works, of course!” Brian said.
“And when did any of your programmes not work?” Phil snorted. Brian flushed immediately but managed to sound confident.
“All we have to do is make sure it hits the target: and the virus itself is so complicated, it’s easy to identify. I’d go so far as to say, the unique nature of the virus will make it impossible to miss.”
“But we only get the one chance. It has to hit every infected network simultaneously, destroying ’em all at once …”
“Or none of them.” Dave added, as Brian hesitated. Brian coloured up once more, this time with embarrassment. He nodded, reluctantly.
“Or as you say, none at all. But we really have no choice, do we?”
“None I can see” Phil admitted. “But let’s suppose it works: Brian’s always been light years ahead of everyone else in the IT business. How will we ID the person or persons behind this? Because they have to be punished!”
“I rather think that when the music stops, anyone who has a parcel in his (or her) hand which they weren’t expecting …” Ian said, thoughtfully.
“Or one which doesn’t appear to work the way it was supposed to!” Dave interrupted.
“ … will be shouting and screaming about why the effin’ eff eff it don’t work, after spending a fortune on it …”
“A case of ‘open mouth, insert foot’ – what was it the Bard said? “Methinks the Lady doth protest too much” The only people to lose out on this are the people who are trying to wreck the system …”
“But that would mean, the very people who introduced the new Law are behind this ‘disappearance’ of votes. Are you seriously saying the Government are behind this?”
A leaden shroud of silence fell on the room. Nobody dared speak. Several seconds treacled by before Brian stirred. Slowly, reluctantly, he forced himself to stretch his arm towards his mouse. He hesitated once more and stared hard at each of his friends, demanding their unanimous nods of acceptance.
“There’s only one way to find out …”
“So do it.”
The “click” of the mouse was preternaturally loud. Silently, Brian pointed at a bank of monitors set up at one end of the room. In seconds green lights began to turn red, an infection spreading over every display, identifying specific identifiable geographical locations in every corner of the UK.
Horrified, Dave sprang to his feet.
“Brian, is this for real? What sort of Pandora’s Box have we opened? Is there a constituency anywhere in the UK where someone isn’t holding a poisoned parcel?”
“The music’s stopped” Phil said “It’s too late now to pass it on to another mug…”