Object 37

The Contrapuntal Hack

2031, Earth

Frank N'Doye was a talented pianist and composer, and in early 2031 he’d been hard at work on his Fourth Symphony, Ceres, for the past six months — but he'd hit a creative block. Frank decided to take a break from composing and listen to some tracks he'd composed years earlier.

"As soon as I pressed play, I could tell that something wasn't right," said Frank N'Doye. "The track had a more impatient rhythm than I remembered, much more hasty. At first I thought I was just imagining it, or maybe that I'd set up the mood reactivity wrong. But the more I listened to it, the more I was convinced that this was not the track that I had recorded. No-one else believed me, but it turned out that I was right... and that wasn’t the only thing that was wrong."

I'll play the two versions for you together, so you can hear for yourself — there, where the rhythm stops matching up. A subtle difference, but a difference all the same.

Frank was the ideal person to discover the Contrapuntal hack. Not only did he have an exceptionally good ear and an eidetic memory, but he had a habit of keeping old pre-cloud physical backup media around his studio with which he could cross-check his suspicions. After confirming that his old tracks had indeed been altered by some kind of hack or viral attack, he contacted Tara Diop, a friend who worked as a security researcher. Diop recalls what happened next:

"It took a few hours of focused effort, but I determined that the subtle alterations to Frank's data — and it wasn't just his music that was altered, it was also exabytes of other information — were made by a novel and unknown intrusive agent."

This agent, later named Contrapuntal, had circumvented the strong security systems that Frank and billions of others relied on to store and protect their data in the ‘cloud’. While some experts had theorised that such an attack was possible by highly skilled state-backed actors, they were sure that such an attack would leave at least some kind of trace — but Contrapuntal’s actions had been almost, but not quite, invisible.

Here’s how: Contrapuntal not only falsified user records when it altered their data, but also inserted eerily believable sham usage patterns. By using a Markovian Parallax Denigrate function, Contrapuntal edited digital memories to make it seem as though its intrusions were in fact the work of the data's owners. When Diop made her discovery public and developed a tool to detect Contrapuntal, billions more hosts were found to have been infected. It was a hack of epic proportions.

The next breakthrough came courtesy of Bruce Cabrera, a freelance security researcher from Venezuela:

"I needed to observe Contrapuntal up close, so I created a honeypot for Contrapuntal in a virtual network and ran it about ten million times. Sometimes Contrapuntal would hijack the user's delegated authority preferences to divert money and privileges to different individuals. Other times it would make strange edits to archived messages under the guise of obfuscram operations. On a couple of occasions, it even composed passably good poetry or issued blackmail demands via professional-grade AR. I found it baffling, to be frank. I couldn’t tell what its goal was."

Whatever its ultimate purpose, Contrapuntal was wreaking genuine havoc. Its ability to rewrite history caused huge financial damage, and the world economy itself came under serious threat as people began to lose their faith in their information. Only a concerted effort by thousands of researchers and amplified teams sufficed to weed out Contrapuntal from every online host. The subsequent painstaking reconstruction of data took months, and the ultimate effects of the hack were estimated to consume more than 0.4 percent of global economic product that year.

To prevent Contrapuntal or a similar attack from occurring again, authorities mandated that all vulnerable hosts required patching; any unpatched devices would be marked as ‘untrustworthy’ and their communications ignored. On June 14th, 2031, in the most intensive computer-security operation of its kind in history, 1.4 trillion hosts were patched within a 48-hour period — and it worked without a hitch. People let out a deep breath and carried on with their lives.

And that's where it would have ended, a mystifying act of data terrorism with no obvious target or goal and frustratingly few leads as to the perpetrator, were it not for a chance event 19 years later.

In 2050, Tara Diop was examining logs from 8.1 million network sensors as part of a historical security exercise, unrelated to the events of 2031. During her investigation, she noticed a strange spike in power usage across the sensors that had been almost perfectly concealed. Working backwards, she traced the spike's timing to the firmware patch that supposedly eliminated Contrapuntal. To her horror, Diop discovered that in making devices secure against the hack, the patch had in fact ended up exposing devices to another completely different intrusive agent, ‘Contrapuntal-2’.

Thankfully, further investigation revealed that compared to the original Contrapuntal hack, this Contrapuntal-2 was much more short-lived and apparently wholly benign. In a fraction of a second, the Contrapuntal-2 executed a short series of operations across 1.4 trillion devices, and promptly erased itself. It remains impossible to reconstruct those operations or know for what purpose they were made, but it is safe to assume that it was some kind of distributed computing task that required intensive, concentrated, and widespread processing power.

Speculation continues to this day about this odd series of events. The most beguiling but sadly unprovable hypothesis is that the 2031 event, in its similarity to the emergence of Narada, the so-called Trickster intelligence, also represented the birth of a new intelligence. Narada, of course, isn't talking — and neither is the intelligence behind Contrapuntal.