JUANITA WAS WAITING for us. She was looking at her watch as we walked through the door of the detective-room.
“What’s the hurry?” Ron asked.
“We got something on the alarm system. Interesting. Let’s go talk to Pete from Labs.”
Juanita led the way as we went down to the forensic labs, located in the basement. On the way, Ron gave her a quick update on Marion Altward and her juicy inputs.
Finally, Juanita knocked at an open office door. A little bespectacled man turned from his desk and we simultaneously said “Hi.”
Juanita explained, “Pete here worked together with the guy from the insurance company and the manufacturer on the electronic control of Altward’s safe.”
“They were both extremely forthcoming and helpful,” Pete replied.
“Can you tell these guys what you just told me on the phone?” Juanita asked as she sat down on the edge of Pete’s desk.
“Sure. Come gather round people,” he said and picked up a model that resembled the control panel I had seen in Altward’s gallery. He pulled off the front panel to revesal a jumble of wires and chip-cards. “This is one of the latest models on the market. Altward’s alarm system is only about two years old and they upgraded it every year, it is as safe as it gets these days.” He readjusted his glasses and pointed out the details. “It works like this, you place your thumb or any other finger onto this mold and your fingerprint gets checked in a main control unit, which is located in the main safe room. If the main unit says ‘Yes,’ it starts opening the electronic locks.”
“So there is no way to access the main unit directly?” Ron asked.
“That’s right. The fact is that it has no manual input at all, no keyboard, just some little blinking lights. If you do something, you have to do it via the control box. I won’t bore you with the encryption system or the security of the network between the control box and the main unit but it comes down to this, everything you do, you do from the wall units.”
“Sounds more like a computer than an alarm,” I remarked.
“You are correct, it is a computer system,” Pete nodded his head and had to readjust his glasses again. “This control box is a standalone computer; the main control unit is, too. So is the other wall unit located in the back-office of the gallery. They are all connected by a network.”
“You read a lot about computers and networks being hacked these days,” Ron said.
“All the regular computer technologies and network standards are tested constantly by hackers and other criminals for their security gaps and exploits. That’s why the manufacturer of these boxes wrote their own version of networking protocols and programming languages.”
“That is possible? Sounds like a lot of software development.”
“Not really, all the concepts are around, IT students often develop their own languages and protocols at university so they can learn the theoretical concepts behind it.”
“So when an outsider, like a hacker-thief, looks into the chips and circuits, all he sees is garbage. ”
“Yeah, as if you, for example, are a journalist and fluent in American English and are suddenly confronted with a German article. You recognize it for what it is, an article, and maybe you understand the purpose. But you understand neither the background nor the content.”
“Or even worse, Russian, different characters and all,” I threw in.
“Exactly,” Pete put the box back together and put it on his desk.
“What is the conclusion now? That it couldn’t have been done?” Ron was as impatient as ever.
“Hang on, I am not through yet. The tech guys and I went through it step-by-step to see what the hacker-thief had done. We found various points where he removed wires and connectors to attach scanners or readers. He worked his way systematically through the box to find a point of weakness that he could exploit.”
“Did he find one?”
“He did!” Pete exclaimed. “Because of various checking mechanisms, every attempt to network with the main control box is logged. However, there is no recording of a failed attempt, like a wrong password.”
Ron threw his hands up. “Don’t say that. That would mean, someone who knew the password opened the safe. Altward, Faulkner, Assistant… ”
“It would but it wasn’t. The log of the wall unit has no entry for any of the employees’ biometrics being entered.”
“But the main box had?”
“Yes. The only way you could achieve that is if you bug the wall box and wait until Altward or someone else scans his thumb ‘record’ imprint and later ‘replays’ it.”
“In English, you fake the thumbprint toward the main control unit.”
“That’s it. On a purely electronic basis. Forget all this James Bond nonsense of having fake thumbs and all that. The scan is translated into numbers and code, you catch that somehow, and you have access.”
Pete stood up and paced the room. “The problem is that there are so many encryptions, authorizations and logging going on that it is damn near impossible to fool the main control unit. Please understand, the manufacturer took all the necessary steps to prevent such a thing from ever happening.”
“Obviously not enough.”
“Obviously not,” Pete agreed.
Ron was unhappy. “Where does that leave our investigation? Please spare me any more tech details.”
Pete counted off on his fingers, “One: Altward didn’t open the safe. It would have shown up in the logbook of the alarm system. Two: It was done by a specialist who erased all records in the system logs of the steps taken during the break-in. Three: You are looking for a specialist with a very specific profile and skills. Four: There is a distinct possibility of other criminal activities in the computer crime area.”
Ron looked at me for a while, gnawing at his lower lip. Did he expect consultant input or was he putting me on the suspect list again?
“That specialist profile is in your report?” He asked, slapping the file on his other hand.
“Hard to find?”
Pete nodded. “Yes. The original equipment manufacturer is a Norwegian company.”
Ron just raised an eyebrow. “Do I start looking for pullovers in SoCal now?”
Pete shrugged easily. “Someone with good computer skills could interpret the inputs and outputs of the boxes without inside knowledge.”
“Where do I find such a guy? Or girl?” With a look toward me.
Pete looked at Ron. “Pardon me; I am only the techie here.”
“Where then?” Ron said, rolling his eyes.
Pete was surprised that Ron asked him but answered anyway. “Well, the FBI of course. Hacking is a state-level crime.”
On the way back to the office, Ron was steaming. “FBI, Jesus, how far will this go, the President?”
Juanita cheered him up. “Come on. The skill thing is great and it’s a good lead. Pete did a good job.”
“As soon as you get the FBI involved, the whole case goes down the drain.”
Juanita took it easy. “I bet the FBI has its head under water anyway with the double murder of the diplomats behind the airport. They will assist us and they will be happy to not have to do the dirty work.”