Last week I got a phone call giving me the very bad news that a friend of mine had tried to hang herself. She was discovered and cut free while still alive, but she had had suffered brain damage bad enough to send her into a coma. She may never wake up, and even if she does, her doctor says she will only have about 20 per cent of her brain function left. She will probably not be able to see, or hear, or speak. It is a savage, staggering tragedy. My friend had everything to live for. She was young, attractive, happily married, well-off. She had a bright career as a film producer. I put the phone down and was weeping and cursing. Sadly, I didn’t have to ask why she had done it.
For some months I’d been trying to help her with a situation that was getting more and more out of control. My friend-I will call her Martha-had been spending a lot of time on the Internet, in chatrooms. These are places where people meet anonymously using pseudonyms like Homeboy Jim and KoolKatya99. Rarely do these people actually want to chat, mostly they are there to pick each other up and type sex together. How do you type sex? Well, you just imagine what you would be doing if you were really together, and type it on your qwerty keyboard.
For example Homeboy Jim tells KoolKatya99, ‘I am licking your ear’, she replies ‘I love that, don’t stop.’ And so on. There is nothing you can do in real life that you can’t do in cyberspace, but the reverse is not true. You can do things in cyberspace that you could never do in real life, because they are impossible, or illegal, or too degrading.
My friend Martha didn’t use a pseudonym, and wasn’t there for sex. She was researching an idea for a movie about life on the Internet. She was there to meet people-well, almost-and to ask them about their experiences and try to understand what sort of relationships they were able to form. As a completely sincere person, she never felt the need to hide either her own identity or why she was there. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bad mistake. Martha had been talking to people who hid behind names like Bigbozo, ChiliPeper, Mokie Stinger, Babe, Sex Queen. She had been telling them exactly who and what she was. She had no idea who they were.
Martha contacted me about eight months ago, because she knew I’d spent a lot of time on the Net. I’d been on one form or another of it since 1984. My book The Cybergypsies, about the colliding realities of online and offline living, was just about to be published in the UK. Martha told me about her own forays into cyberspace, and particularly to this chatroom. I urged her not to visit Internet chatrooms. They tend to be filled either with bored teenagers looking for cheap thrills, or with various sorts of perverts. Martha didn’t disagree. She said that the sexual pestering was very trying, but she was trying to get behind people’s facades. They couldn’t be as shallow as they presented themselves.
Some of them intrigued her. They were obviously intelligent, capable of discussing art or films or politics. She wanted to reach into the darkness of cyberspace, catch these shadows and remove their masks.
The people in the chatroom, of course, didn’t believe that Martha really was a film producer, and soon they started to tease her. ‘Caught any good movies lately?’ ‘Wanna film me making it with my girlfriend?’ She found this irritating, but instead of ignoring it, she made the further mistake of inviting them to check up on her. She gave them details about herself, her life, the movies she had produced. It was soon after this that she asked for my advice.She was worried because people in the chatroom were beginning to replay things about her life that she had not told them. For the first time, she began to think that she might be going mad.
I rang a friend of mine who used to be a hacker. He had spent six years in a federal prison in the US for virusing an FBI computer. He’d hacked it and uploaded a virus (or, more accurately a trojan) called Backtime which made its clock run backwards. So funny did he think this that two days later he hacked the same computer again and this time they were waiting for him.
This friend told me to ask Martha if her computer was in her bedroom. I did. It was. When I reported this back, he said that Martha should look in her Windows\System directory for a file called sysedit.exe. If she found it, she should delete it.
There is a trojan called Master’s Paradise. It comes in two parts, one of which is sent to a victim as an e-mail attachment, usually disguised as some harmless thing like a screensaver. When executed, this part of the program installs itself on the victim’s hard disk and quietly begins monitoring the serial ports. The sender uses the other part of the program to call up the victim’s computer. The two parts of the program talk, and the intruder gains access to the whole of the victim’s computer. This means someone who sends you the Master’s Paradise trojan can open up every file on your computer. They can read your e-mail, and your private documents, your accounts, everything. They can also control every program on your machine. So if you have a computer with a built-in microphone, they can turn on the microphone and record whatever it hears. And if the computer and its microphone happen to be in your bedroom...
Martha found sysedit.exe in two directories. We contacted the best anti-virus outfit I knew, which is Datafellows, and they gave us a program to disinfect her computer. We were able to confirm the presence of Master’s Paradise. I last heard from Martha about four months ago. She told me that she was furious with what they had done to her, the hateful trick they had played, that she had gone back on the chat site to give them hell. She said that since most of the site users were US citizens-she could tell this much at least from the way they used English-and what they had done was a felony in US law, they would have reason to be afraid. She told them that she now had powerful hacker friends and that they should beware. If they could trace her IP address through the chatroom, she could trace theirs. Once again, I begged her to let it be. Now that she knew she was not going crazy, that it had not all been in her imagination, she should sever the ties and put it behind her. ‘Use it in your movie,’ I told her, ‘but please don’t go back.’ I heard nothing more from her. And then last week came the call.
When Outlook asked me to write an article about Internet relationships, how they differ from real life ones and what the long-term effect of the Net might be, I had a great many things planned. I intended to talk about how it is possible for deep friendships to form and develop between people who have never met in the flesh. Some of my closest friends are people I once knew only on the Net. I have a friend of 10 years standing whom I could trust with anything, yet we have never once met.
I wanted to convey a message of hope, and a rallying cry. A century of false new dawns-from the end of ‘War to End All Wars’ 1918, to the ‘never again’ charter of the United Nations in 1945 and President Bush’s ‘new world order’ at the end of the Gulf war-has brought only massive disillusion. But, over the last few decades, there really has been a deep, irrevocable change taking place in the world, a fundamental shifting in the deep sub-stratum. The Internet will increasingly mean that ordinary people across the world can communicate directly with one another, and when that happens it will be the beginning of the end for tyrannies of all kinds, whether of brutal dictators, greedy multinational corporations, or unpleasant media moguls.
But now I cannot write about any of these things. I am filled with rage and sorrow, because for all the good that we may strive to do, nothing can ever eradicate the evil in some human hearts.
It is a bright blue day here in Sussex, a thin layer of snow lying on the grass, and I think of my friend Martha, lying unconscious in her hospital bed, who cannot see this beautiful day, and who will never see the Millennium.
Indra Sinha is an author and former advertising professional based in Sussex, England. He has been active on the Internet for 15 years and has recently come out with his book Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War, & Betrayal on the Electronic Frontier. The book, among other things, is a personal confessional about the strain that years of computer addiction placed on his marriage.