My grandma claims that her computer has been “hacked” about once a week. Usually her monitor has come unplugged or she has accidentally deleted her AOL bookmark. Needless to say, “the hackers” 1 don’t stand to gain much from attacking an old lady. Or so I thought. Cover your grandma’s ears: the hackers are here.
One day Inna Simone 2 logs on to her computer and finds it’s running a little slow. She reboots a couple of times before giving up and leaving town for the weekend. When she gets back she can’t get into any of her files. A message pops up: “All of your files have been protected with a strong encryption.” Someone got into her computer, locked up all of her files, and won’t let her back in unless she coughs up $500 in ransom. Even worse, she has only seven days to pay up.
Inna quickly weighs her options. She could ignore the hackers’ demands and lose her files. The only thing is, her husband has more than $500 worth of unreimbursed receipts saved on the computer. For her (and many of us, I suspect) it’s actually worth it to pay the ransom.
Inna’s attackers demand their ransom in bitcoin, the untraceable internet currency. Inna buys $500 worth of bitcoin and plans to send a bitcoin money order in the morning. And here’s where Inna’s story gets shockingly relatable. A snow storm, followed immediately by the Thanksgiving holiday, delay her ransom payment. While we can imagine the horrors of paying cyber-criminals ransom, we have all dealt first hand with capricious weather and the bureaucracy. In a hilarious turn, Inna seems more angry with the post office and logistics of her ransom payment than with the actual hacking. In her own words, she’s a “double victim, victim squared, victim cubed!”
Inna Simone makes for an excellent lesson in character. Good radio pieces have a story, something with some characters, a plot, conflict, and forward momentum. Great radio pieces, however, have great characters. Inna is delightfully indignant and has a wonderfully expressive voice. She, backed by some spunky-yet-spooky scoring, elevates this piece from good to great.
While her money slowly makes its way to the hackers, the bitcoin-US dollar exchange rate changes. She’s suddenly a few dollars short. At the eleventh hour she enlists her daughter to go to a bitcoin ATM (because such a thing exists) in Brooklyn (because, of course). 3 Still, her ransom payment arrives late. Two and a half hours late. And then…
Well, it turns out that Russian hackers work in giant office parks. According to Joseph Menn, it’s a lot like NBC’s the Office except, instead of selling paper, young hackers conduct their business on secret websites. Imagine something like Etsy or eBay where everyone is selling and buying illegal cyber-crime services. Darkode is the most important and infamous of these sites.
In the episode’s second act we meet the founder of Darkode, the site where Inna’s hackers might have found work. Maybe. And that, that “maybe,” is the episode’s only short-coming. For obvious reasons, Radiolab didn’t track down Inna’s hackers. Instead, they explained the world they inhabit, the people might be. It would be totally unfair to complain about this. 4The sudden shift from Inna to the whole cyber-crime universe is a smart way to address this roadblock and presages a not-so-distant future in which cyber crimes might be as common as a hold-up at the post office. The gripping nature of Inna’s story leaves you dying to know what happens next, but given the limitations of the real world, Radiolab crushed it.
Oh, right—what happened to Inna! The hackers respond to Inna’s late payment with a message that the ransom has doubled. Inna begs for mercy, heaping blame on the weather and, of course, the post office. Shockingly, her plea works. The hackers tell her she has paid in full. What exactly happened in an office park in Russia? We will never know. 5
You could point to “Chasing the Dread Pirate Roberts” and say Planet Money had the best radio story about secret websites that facilitate crime of ALL TIME, 6 but you’d be kind of a dick. And also you’d be wrong. Well not wrong, because they did have one of the best radio stories about secret websites that facilitate crime, but “Darkode” ranks up there too. Radiolab’s latest is delicious and terrifying radio, with a surprising dose of humor.
- Whoever they might be. I choose to picture a pimply Hans Gruber. ^
- Nina Simone?!?! We’ll see if my editor keeps this one in.
Just this once.^
- Inna chastising her daughter for prioritizing a play-date over a ransom payment is the best tape in the episode. ^
- But what else are critics for? ^
- See what I mean? Aren’t you dying to know? ^
- Just like you could say that Planet Money, not 99% Invisible, has the best shipping container episode; or that, This American Life, not Planet Money, had the best “what if?” episode about food. Also: damn, go Planet Money. ^
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