Arnold had just finished lunch at a local steakhouse when he was pulled over by the police; it was not just one police car, but what seemed like at least twenty of them. This was no stop for speeding or overdue parking tickets.

He heard over a megaphone:

“Get out of the car and put your hands on the roof of the car!”

Arnold complied.

Three other officers approached him. One put handcuffs on him while another read him his rights. The third explained there was an APB out for him. He was driven to the police station and taken to the interview room.

The interviewing officer said to him:

“You are charged with identity theft and embezzlement. You used a debit card belonging to James Thurbill to withdraw as much money as you could from his bank account. We have video of you getting into your car after being at the Bank of America ATM on Pryor St. We also have subpoenaed your bank records and we have record of you depositing that very amount into your account three days ago. In addition, we also have noticed other deposits corresponding to amounts of money taken from a Karen Walsh, Charles Genmore, and John and Tracy Linkwell. We also searched your home and found the debit cards for Ms. Walsh, Mr. Thurbill, Mr. Genmore, and Mr. and Mrs. Linkwell. We also found records on your computer with those same names. If you confess right now, we will go easy on you, but if you resist the charges, will be ratcheted up and you will be spending a very long time in prison. So you decide now.”

Obviously, Arnold was more scared than he had ever been, but he was no longer the mentally ill teenager who could be intimidated by any authority. He could think despite being under the gun. He knew the officer was lying. He did not recognize the name of “Walsh” and he was not guilty of whatever happened to her, although he was guilty of the other capers. He always threw away the debit cards once used, so there was no way officers could have discovered such a thing in his room, and, even in the unlikely event they had hacked into his computer, no such records existed on it.

Arnold simply replied:

“I want a lawyer.”

The officer let out a grunt of disapproval and said, “All right,” and left the interview room.

Arnold did not know any attorneys or how to judge them, so he requested a public defender, and the guard outside called one.

His lawyer introduced himself as Mr. Jefferies and said to him:

“I am your attorney. I am here to defend you. I am sworn to do this to the best of my ability even if you are guilty. You need to tell me the truth even if you have lied to the police. I am on your side and you have no reason to lie to me.”

Since he worked for the government, Arnold did not trust him, and so he told him, “I don’t know anything about identity theft. I just thought they made a mistake at the Bank of America when they sent me the debit card with the wrong name. I just wanted to withdraw that money so I could buy a new car. It turned out that the dealer already sold the car so I put it back. I’m just a delivery driver. I don’t know what that cop was talking about when he said they found all of that stuff. There is nothing like that in my room.”

His lawyer responded:

“Cops lie all of the time. They are allowed to do that. I hope you are telling the truth, though. The prosecution will have to disclose all of the evidence they have against you if we go to trial.”

Arnold though a minute about how to respond. Within a second, Arnold came to a decision, “I know what I did was stupid, but I am a mental case, so I get confused sometimes.”

His lawyer’s eyes lit up and he said:

“Really, tell me about it.”

Arnold told him about his hospital stays and the myriad of diagnoses he had since he was a child, and his lawyer replied:

“This is good. I want to tell you that I was not enthusiastic about taking your case. As a white male, I assumed you would never be victimized by the criminal justice system if you were not actually guilty. I took this job because I wanted to help African-Americans and other marginalized people victimized by the criminal justice system because of who they are. Now I know you are marginalized, so you are a victim who needs help, too.”

After a flash of elation, Arnold began to feel sad. He thought he had shed the status of mental patient permanently. He thought of the film and novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and wondered how his status could backfire on him. At least criminals were taken seriously in a way mental patients were not.

He told his lawyer:

“I am really too stupid to know how to do any of this. I can’t steal an identity. I’m just a delivery driver. I just drive where Google Maps tells me to drive. That’s all.”

The lawyer replied:

“Don’t put yourself down like that. It’s just that your brain works differently than those of other people.  If the evidence they have to charge you is as thin as you say it is, and coupled with the fact you have no priors, I could probably get you released without bail as early as today. I will also speak with the district attorney’s office; I believe I can convince them not to file charges.”

Arnold smiled as he heard from him the same sort of nonsense he heard from his doctors, as if they were all educated in the same bullshit. He was happy to see the possibility of light at the end of this tunnel.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Two tall men with dark suits and glasses to match flashed their identification in front of the guard who hurriedly stepped aside for them.

The taller one, with his identification still visible, said:

“I am Agent Paul Stanton of the National Security Agency, and this is my partner, Agent Darius Jones. Arnold Simmons, you need to come with us.”

Agent Jones grabbed Arnold by the shirt and he quickly stood up. Arnold’s lawyer protested, demanding to know what was going on, and Agent Stanton gave a quick motion to the guard who pointed his weapon at the attorney and told him to move out of the way.

The lawyer sat down and Arnold was quickly escorted by the agents and a bevy of guards in SWAT uniforms with automatic weapons. They escorted him into a black SUV, which somebody began to drive. Both Arnold and the agents were silent as they went to the Georgia field office of the NSA.

The agents escorted Jones to the NSA interview room. Agent Stanton dismissed Agent Jones and the largest man Arnold had ever seen entered; he was bald, had a long, scraggly beard, and was wearing what seemed to look like prison garb at first glance. He stood next to Arnold. At any rate, this man was not dressed like the rest of the NSA employees, who were either wearing suits or SWAT gear.

Agent Stanton motioned to the other man, who grabbed Arnold’s right hand with his left, slammed it on the table, and smashed it as hard as he could with his right fist.

Agent Stanton said:

“Mr. Simmons, this is Mr. Wango. He is a bit mentally unstable, which is why he is so good at the job he does here. You know what this is all about, don’t you, Mr. Simmons? Those VPNs you use are not perfect, particularly if you use them often. We know exactly what you did. What we need to know now is how you did it. Did you learn to factor prime numbers? Is that how you did it? Why don’t you show me?”

Immediately, a woman walked in and placed Arnold’s computer in front of him. Agent Stanton said:

“Now, Mr. Simmons, get into your computer and show me how you did it, or I will let Mr. Wango have his way with you.”

Arnold was beyond stunned. He didn’t bother to protest or ask for an attorney. He knew he had no rights here. He thought about entering the self-destruct code into the computer instead of the password, but then he looked at Mr. Wango and thought again. He complied with Stanton’s request.

“Good.” said Agent Stanton. “Now tell me what’s going on.”

Arnold showed Agent Stanton his program and then took some time to explain the algorithm. As much as he was loathe to admit, he was almost having a good time explaining to Stanton how it all worked. Stanton was obviously trained simply as a government agent and had little knowledge of computers. Teaching him almost reversed the direction of the dominance hierarchy in the room for a short time.

Stanton told him, “I will send this to the tech team for analysis. You might have made all computer security obsolete.”

As he was leaving, Stanton said one more thing: ”We know you’re guilty. If you want to stay out of prison, I suggest you keep quiet about what goes on here.”

Stanton left the room and closed the door. Then, Mr. Wango slammed Arnold’s head on the table, picked him up by the hair, slammed him against the wall, and punched him in the stomach as hard as he could. Then he slammed him face-first on the table, pulled down his pants, and shoved his penis up his anus.

“Oooohhh bitch! Yo’ pudding cup better than real pussy.” Mr. Wango exclaimed.

A few minutes later, men clad in SWAT gear burst into the room and took Mr. Wango and Arnold away. Arnold did not see what became of Mr. Wango, but he was simply dumped out the back door into the parking lot.

The sun was up, so he guessed it was daytime. He wandered around the building and a uniformed security guard asked him who he was and what he was doing here. Arnold did not know what to say, but then the guard noticed Arnold was seriously injured, so he called 911 and an ambulance arrived. He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital. After he was treated and ready to go, he was asked by a nurse what happened. After thinking a bit, Arnold told her he was at a local gay club and things got out of hand, as they sometimes do. She told him to be careful next time and gave him some information on GLBT groups that she said could help him.

Meanwhile, the man called “Agent Stanton” sent the relevant code to a friend he knew at Google. They sent him an email in return saying:

This algorithm does not factor all prime numbers. It is just a gimmick. As soon as we get past 64-bit primes, it fails completely. Almost nobody used security that lax anymore, but some people, including respectable institutions, still do because they are too cheap and lazy to upgrade. This might be just the motivation everybody needs to get 256-bit level encryption. We can’t use this to break into everything. I’m sorry. I’ll put out an advisory about this now, though.

Stanton had no idea what any of that meant, other than that he had not found something nearly as big as he thought he did. He put his head in his hands and then groaned thinking about the prospect of writing a report justifying all the money he spent trying to catch a two-bit hacker whom he let go.


For all installments of “Show Your Work,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Pattern I: The Ordinary World
  2. Pattern II: Good Luck