Thursday, 26 September 2013

Digital Intrusion (Nights Black Agents)

There are all kinds of techno toys on offer in Night's Black Agents, but - as the NSA has done its best to remind us - communications, electronic or otherwise, are very vulnerable to attack. This can have severe consequences for the Agents, but can also be used by them to good effect. What possibilities are there?

To begin with, telephonic communication is extremely vulnerable. There are several sophisticated gadgets that have been built for the sole purpose of intercepting and tracking phones and their data, but I'm only going to talk about a couple: the Kingfish, and Gossamer.

Kingfish is a small device, easily hidden in a suitcase, that can be operated wirelessly, with a Bluetooth-enabled PC.  According to Ars Technica, Kingfish "does not appear to enable interception of communications; instead, it can covertly gather unique identity codes and show connections between phones and numbers being dialed." It's the perfect device for keeping tabs on those pesky Agents; one call, and you're caught, and each call you make extends the net, until the user knows exactly who you've been talking to, and when. While it does not appear to be able to intercept communications, there are upgrades which may enable that functionality, as well as other upgrades that extend its range and allow it to home in on a selected telephone number. The chief attraction, from the Keeper's perspective, is its relative inexpensiveness compared to similar devices on the market. A price tag of $25,349 puts it well within range of a civilian, or criminal, group.

Gossamer is slightly less expensive, at $19,696. "It sends out a covert signal that tricks phones into handing over their unique codes," says Ars Technica, allowing it to identify users and home in on particular devices of interest. It''s also smaller than Kingfish, being about the size of a clunky walkie talkie. But the real sting in Gossamer's tail is its denial of service attack; it can overwhelm a target, preventing it from receiving or making calls. Ever wondered how you can stop the Agents from making that vital phone call? Wonder no more. 

In game, the Keeper should use devices like these as Electronic Surveillance or Digital Intrusion tools. In the event of a Contest, possession could reduce Difficulty, if the Keeper's feeling generous. Obtaining one should be very difficult; the devices mentioned here are at the cheap end of the spectrum, but more sophisticated systems can run into the hundreds of thousands. 

Of course, there are other ways of getting hold of data. Hacking's been popular ever since WarGames, but what if you lack the skills to do it yourself? Hire someone, of course, and there are plenty of someones out there. Kapersky Lab has been tracking groups like these for some time. Icefog's a tight-knit group that's been attacking government institutions, military contractors, maritime and ship-building groups, telecom operators, satellite operators, industrial and high technology companies and mass media, mainly in Japan and South Korea, since at least 2011. Shanghai-based Comment Crew have been going after US and Canadian targets since 2006. Hidden Lynx, another Chinese crew, has been active since 2009, and has hit targets in 15 regions across the globe. "Given the breadth and number of targets and regions involved, we infer that [Hidden Lynx] is most likely a professional hacker-for-hire operation that is contracted by clients to provide information," Symantec researchers claim. "They steal on demand, whatever their clients are interested in, hence the wide variety and range of targets."

But should you choose to hire mercenaries, there's always a risk you'll get burned. Does a bought hacker stay loyal? Are your own machines free of the organization's malware? If they're willing to sell anyone's data, then they certainly have their hooks in yours; after all, you never know when it will be strategically useful to sell on a former employer's information.

In game, the most likely employer for organizations like these is the Conspiracy, but it's up to the Keeper whether they've been subverted or not. A subverted group is likely to be small - Icefog numbers perhaps 10 in all, but Hidden Lynx has 100 - mainly because it's difficult to keep large groups of highly independent people, like hackers, quiet, without using force or significant economic resources. This is particularly the case with groups like Hidden Lynx and the Comment Crew, which may - or may not - have Chinese government connections.

And then, as this somewhat mournful NBC news blog points out, there are all the usual ways of tracking a person. Cameras read your license plate. Other security cameras dot your path in every major city, tracking your movements on foot. Social media users, and computer users in general, are always being monitored by someone, either for marketing or more sinister purposes. Each swipe of a fob to get you in and out of a building is traceable. Just by reading this blog, you're being watched by someone ... and it almost certainly isn't just me.

But what about email? Surely there are services out there that are uncrackable? Would that it were so, but in the wake of the Snowden affair it's become painfully obvious that there's no such thing as a secure email provider. Snowden's provider Lavabit shut down not long after the NSA story broke. It claimed it would rather not have the data than hand it over to the government. After Lavabit came SilentCircle, a company that had, until that point, offered a secure means of communication. Its CEO, Michael Janke, said he saw "the writing on the wall," and destroyed Silent Circle's servers. The problem was the data: by keeping it on the servers, it was constantly vulnerable to seizure. "It is always better to be safe than sorry," said Janke, "and with your safety we decided that the worst decision is always no decision." SilentCircle also pointed out that, even if the information within the email could somehow be kept secure, the metadata - who sent it, when, and to whom - is always vulnerable. The email protocols demand it, because without it nobody would ever be able to send a message. "Email as we know it with SMTP, POP3, and IMAP cannot be secure," said Janke.

I hope this gave the Keepers out there some useful information! Just remember, in the internet age, someone's always watching ... and you'll never know who. Until it's too late.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Firewall (Andy McNab)

It occurred to me, as I read through Night's Black Agents for the umpteenth time, that I had a problem, and my problem was thrillers. I hadn't read enough. Or to be more accurate, the thrillers I read tend to be Anthony Price / Ian Fleming vintage; British, and a little out of date. Determined to update myself, I picked up The Bourne Identity second hand and ploughed through it. Fun stuff, but I hadn't realized how old it was. A 1980s spy fest wasn't updating me. Then I saw Andy McNab's Firewall.

McNab, for those who aren't familiar with his work, is a former soldier and ex-SAS who started writing in the 1990s, and kicked off his Nick Stone series in 1998. I've known who he was for a while - you can't go into a bookstore in the UK without seeing his name on a dustjacket somewhere - but I've not read any of his stuff until now. Nick Stone is his primary protagonist, an SAS turned deniable asset who works all over the globe, for all sorts of odd people. British Intelligence is his primary paymaster -for an insultingly low amount of money, if Firewall is to be believed - but he's willing to take almost any job that pays. In Firewall, the story begins when Stone's hired to kidnap a Russian oligarch, but when things go a bit pear shaped Stone not only sets the oligarch free but ends up working for him instead. Thus begins his escapades in Russia, as he attempts to stop the ROC from getting hold of the West's most sensitive electronic data. Firewall is currently being turned into the movie Echelon, still in production.

It's entertaining. I don't know if I would have picked this up had I not been interested in data mining it for Night's Black Agents, and I'm still not convinced I like McNab's writing style, but I liked it enough to pick up another of his, so I suppose that's a good sign. It's written in what I'm going to call First Person Fucknugget, or FPF for short, and the reason I'm calling it that is I'm firmly convinced that, if Stone ever paused for thought, his brain would explode. I've never read anything quite so much in the present tense; everything's explained from Stone's point of view, as Stone's seeing it, and Stone's constantly moving from point to point to point. It's like reading the adventures of a heavily armed movie camera with legs. It reminded me, oddly enough, of those old Games Workshop Felix and Gotrek novels, where the protagonists exist only to do massive amounts of damage and move on to the next scene.

McNab's thoroughly absorbed the old pulp dicta that, whenever things start to slow down, you should have a man come in the door with a gun, except this time the man's Stone and he's probably got at least two guns and a combat knife. That said, the body count is remarkably low, at least in Firewall. I didn't count, but I think Stone's bag didn't exceed a dozen, all told, not counting miscellaneous Russians who may or may not have died when Stone blew their building up. Felix and Gotrek, by contrast, would have gone through a Skaven army in the time it takes Stone to describe his meeting with his British Intelligence bosses.  

I really liked Stone's fallibility. It didn't strike me until after I'd read it, but Jason Bourne's a bit too perfect. Yes, he has his memory problems, but when he goes into action he doesn't put a foot wrong, even if he does worry himself to death. Stone, by contrast, is a walking disaster. He gets into his latest scrape by screwing up a kidnapping. He reports back to his Intelligence bosses - who don't know he's contracting out on the side - looking for work to pay off his debts, only to be chewed out by his soon-to-be ex boss for the screwups he perpetrated in the last novel. "You trusted the femme fatale, you pillock!" screams the man who's about to be sacked because of what Stone did last time. "Cheery bye," says Stone, and he immediately trusts Firewall's femme fatale, who leads him off on a merry chase. Not only that, but Stone doesn't even get a shag out of it; the support character, the guy with the "I'm going to die tragically, and it's Nick Stone's fault" sign hung around his neck, is the one who gets her into bed. Cue mishap after mishap. Stone scuffles with the American NSA, beats them up because he doesn't know who they are, Stone gets mugged, Stone loses his support character, Stone gets a car from Russian mafia connection, Stone's car is stolen, Stone goes in search of his support character, massive explosions. If ever, as a Keeper, you've wondered how the players will get out of their latest cock-up, read a bit of McNab. There's always a way, if you're willing to get beaten up a bit first.

It's also a fascinating look at what happens in the middle of all this action. There's a tendency, on the Keeper's side, to make everything connected. The guy you meet in scene one will turn up in scene four, that sort of thing. Not so, in McNab's world. People pass through in the blink of an eye, get shot, and vanish, never to be seen again. Most of them don't even have names, or at least not names Stone's prepared to learn. If a civilian's wife gets killed in the kidnapping scene, and the husband's last seen sobbing over the body, that doesn't mean he's going to be an important diplomat who now swears revenge against Stone, as I was half expecting; he's just some random dude who got off the elevator at the wrong moment and walked into a gunfight. That will happen in the real world, but it doesn't often happen in fiction. I think this is where McNab's ex military experience really comes through; not in the technobabble or the action, but in his understanding that, in any action scene, there's going to be chaos, confusion, cock ups and misfires. It happens, and the work of a professional isn't to overcome the opposition, but to overcome the problems that the mission throws up, usually at the worst possible moment.

I'd definitely recommend McNab to anyone wanting to run, or play, Night's Black Agents. I don't say he's brilliant; I say he's useful, and a fun read, particularly if you want a better idea of how a gunfight might play out or what a good chase scene needs. But I'd add the caveat that it only really works if you're running an action-packed game, with mooks aplenty; if you were aiming for something a little more sedate and vicious, like John le CarrĂ©, steer clear. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Cop Shop (Trail of Cthulhu / Night's Black Agents)

At some point the player characters are going to run afoul of the law, even if they are the law. The things they get up to - breaking and entering is often where it starts, but never where it stops - almost guarantees that, at some point, the local plods are going to want to have a quiet word. Or possibly a loud one, depending on the jurisdiction, but in either case you, as Keeper, need to have some idea what to do next.

First, let's set the scene. It doesn't matter what era the game's taking place in, for this purpose, as the scene's broadly the same. The characters have done something blatantly illegal, and evidence remains that might indicate who did it, and how. Moreover there's always the chance that the police know more than they ought about the occult aspects of the campaign, whether it's infested with bloodsuckers, or a mere bubble of fragile humanity lodged in a sea of unthinking chaos. Then what happens, and what ought the characters to do about it?

The Keeper needs to bear in mind that:

  1. The cops don't know everything. Outside of television and Agatha Christie, there really isn't a master detective out there who, having taken only a cursory look at the crime scene, understands exactly how it was done and who did it. To the players, what happened may seem painfully obvious. To the first responders, it's a pool of blood, some expended rounds, and maybe some body parts or a corpse. 
  2. Finding out what happened takes time. Investigating the scene, making drawings or taking photographs, collecting evidence, the canvass, interviews;all these things take hours, days, maybe even months before any kind of resolution is achieved.
  3. There are always other suspects. That cult leader or necromancer the characters put down like a rabid dog undoubtedly had plenty of enemies, and the police are going to go through that list name by name. It only gets more complicated if anything screwy's on the scene, like a burial pit with a dozen or more other dead bodies in it, or physical evidence that suggests the decedent is someone, or thing, completely out of the ordinary.
  4. There are always other cases. To the protagonists, this is the only crime in town, but to the cops this is maybe the third shooting tonight. It could just go cold, as so many cases do, or  something much more urgent - a terror threat, a spectacular burglary - may come up to distract the law.  
That said, if the characters make it easy for them, the cops might be knocking on their door sooner rather than later. Did they leave fingerprints everywhere? Or, worse yet, business cards? Were they seen talking with the decedent shortly before the incident? Did the dead person or crime scene have any kind of record of them, say in an appointments book, CCTV, or a collection of blackmail photographs? Then the characters ought to take care, or they'll find themselves in serious trouble.

But what happens when the police know more than the characters would like them to? Some fantasy novels - Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, for instance - assume that there are organizations, or people, within the police who understand the spooky stuff, and who can take action against it. What happens then? 

A great deal will depend on the setting. Trail of Cthulhu posits two types of game, Purist, and Pulp. Bookhounds of London further divides into Arabesque, Technicolor, and Sordid. A Pulp or Technicolor game is probably best suited to a campaign setting in which the police have a Peter Grant style organization within it, dedicated to dealing with occult threats and capable of using arcane powers. In that kind of setting the police could be very useful allies, but even more dangerous enemies. If the Occult Sciences secret division of whatever passes for Military Intelligence decides that the player characters know too much, it has all the resources of a vengeful Government to bring to bear on them. At that point the characters had better leave the area as soon as they're able.

A Purist setting allows for more nuance. There probably are policemen who've seen too much; there may even be one or two who've begun putting the pieces together. But those are lone wolves, disbelieved - even mocked - by their fellow officers. Promotion doesn't come easily to them. In some situations - an Arabesque campaign, for instance - these policemen may have other resources to bring to bear. Imagine a setting in which the constable who always seemed to have that certain something about him, is actually a Knight of the City, protected by London itself; though he, oblivious, may not realize it, the City is helping him each day, keeping him from harm, helping him in his work. Or one in which, being a seventh son of a seventh son, he has the gift of second sight.

Sordid has its own complications. There may be police who know a little about the occult, or even the Mythos, but nothing's free in a Sordid world, and everyone's on the take. Expecting someone like that to be a faithful ally is expecting far too much. On the other hand, a cop with that kind of knowledge may throw their weight around, leaning on the characters when they need to, even blackmailing them if the opportunity arises. 

Night's Black Agents is a different situation. In those games, the police exist mainly as roadblocks or barriers, to be thrown in whenever Heat gets a little too much for the characters. Exciting chase scenes can be had, maybe even a gun battle or two, but the characters generally aren't expected to do much interacting with the local law on a face-to-face basis, particularly since the agents probably aren't going to be in one place long enough. Athens tonight, Paris tomorrow, and if they happen to leave two bodies behind in their travels, they're too far away from the scene to care.

In those situations, it may be worth the Keeper making a note of where the characters have been, in case they go back. Say they made a mess in Athens, went to Paris, had several more adventures, and then, after the Athens debacle has long since faded in the players' memories, they go back to Greece - Heraklion, why not - for another piece of the puzzle. The characters may have forgotten, but the Greek police won't, and old sins may come back to haunt the agents. Sure, they've changed covers since then, but it only takes one careless moment for Heat to suddenly skyrocket, as the cops realize the doofus they caught taking photographs of a military base is actually the same person involved in multiple homicides a year ago.