Payback Time (SwaSan) Episode 16,17 and 18 (Past: Sanskar to Sanky)


Lokesh logged on to my machine, using his system administrator account, and reset my password. He then logged in using my account, to verify that the new password worked.

“That should take care of it. Let me know if you have any more problems.”


I then logged in using my student account, and started working on the assignment, which took me almost no time to complete.

For the next thirty minutes, I listened to Lokesh drone on at the front of the class, using electronic slides on a large computer whiteboard, to explain the use of spreadsheet formulas.

Lokesh’s nonexistent enthusiasm was infectious, and eventually my mind switched off. Lokesh was what some of my old crew used to refer to as a COBOL.

Charlie, the generic programmer who had worked in commercial computing, doing tedious bean-counting projects on mainframes and other soul-destroying mundane stuff.

That was one of the things that made me so keen to start working as a paid hacker, a white hat, someone who broke into banks for money, to help them test their security. At least it was fun. When you worked in the real world, sooner or later, the boredom and office politics slowly corroded your idealism and your enthusiasm for computing, and you eventually became like Lokesh. You spent thirty years eking out your living teaching high schoolers BASIC and looking forward to the day when the final bell rang and it was the long summer vacation.

I leaned back in my chair, and looked around at the rest of the class. There was the usual mix of students. Did any of them look like recruits for a dangerous terrorist who might want to gain access to all of the RAW’s computer systems? I spotted a fair-skinned guy, in the far corner, sitting alone, and reading through his textbook. I guessed he was Arnav. I later learned that my instincts were right.

My gaze slowly drifted around the room. I saw a boy at the front of the class frowning in exasperation at the sheer difficulty of what was an easy assignment. I saw two trendy girls, trying hard to stay awake. I saw another boy sat with his arms folded in ostentatious boredom. I saw a hopelessly attentive girl stick her hand up, only to be ignored.

After finishing his discussion on the sum function, Lokesh handed out a sheet, and told us to type in the ten numbers on it, and work out the sum and the average. I completed that task as fast as I could type, which is pretty darn fast, after years of intense keyboarding. For the other five minutes, while the others caught up, I let my eyes drift around the room some more.

They finally stopped at the front of the classroom, resting on Lokesh’s electronic whiteboard. The interesting thing about it was that it might somehow be incorporated into my plan. Daya had told me to get Arnav’s attention. One possible way to do that would be to connect to Lokesh’s whiteboard, and remotely control it somehow. I imagined Lokesh’s mouse pointer flying uncontrollably over the screen, or drawing some pictures, getting a laugh from the class.

That would definitely get Arnav’s attention. Of course, it had the risk of getting unwanted attention from Lokesh, as well. I sat back, thinking it through. I came out of my daydream when Lokesh came over and asked me how I had done with his assignment. We talked politely about my previous experience with computers, leaving out the ‘spicier’ details, and then he went away.

The bell sounded, and people scattered. On the way out of class, I thanked Lokesh, and dawdled just long enough to get the manufacturer’s name and model of the whiteboard. I had never heard of the company, #########, but I knew that I could look them up on the Internet. After next class, I headed back to the tiny library, and found an Internet terminal. The school and the CBI might be watching my Internet activity, but of course I was deputized for doing such work.

I surfed over to the website of ###########, and found that they made four models of whiteboards. I looked over the specifications for the one I wanted, and realized that it was nothing more than a glorified monitor with a network connection, and that it would be as difficult to hack into as a damp paper bag.

At lunchtime, I went to the cafeteria and got a sandwich, which seemed to be made mostly of wet bread with some tasteless white spread.

Around me, hormonal development unfolded in surround-sound. Boys were pretending to be cowboys. Girls were pretending to be prickly thorns, so as not to be wallflowers.

On the far side of the room was a big, modern-style painting, attached to the wall. A ball of foil suddenly flew past my ear, hitting the boy on the table across from me. Perhaps, I thought, I had been a little too harsh in my judgment of jail after all.

After eating lunch, I walked around the campus, looking to see if I could spot any of the local players. I needed a computer and a phone of my own, but before I got them, I needed somewhere to keep them. It was obvious that whomever Daya had on the staff would be doing a nightly check of the locker that Sanjeet had assigned me.

I wouldn’t be able to use it without Daya knowing in detail what I had stored in it.

But someone in the school would have a locker to rent, at the right price.

I made my way outside, and looked around all the places that provided blind-spots for the smokers and the hard cases—the future inmates of the prison system.

I walked around the perimeter of the grounds. A football flew across my path, nearly hitting me. I picked it up, and threw it back to a group of guys playing tag football.

At last I caught sight of two guys talking beside a garage. Whatever they were haggling about, it was no business of mine. But I watched them, and something changed hands. The guy doing the deal had a cigarette dangling from his lips, like some 1950s actor—too cool for school. He was neatly dressed, and his hair was styled in a trendy way. So he wasn’t exactly one of the slackers—more like an enterprising young businessman.

“Hey, man,” I said to him.

I put a bit of computer nerd in my voice; I didn’t want him to think that I would be storing anything but electronic gadgets in his locker. The guy looked at me like I was a tobacco beetle that was about to chow down on his cigarette.

“How’s it going?” I said.

“Do I know you?”

No, he didn’t know me. But money talks, and it says, “Where there’s a bill, there’s a way.”

For 500 CBI rupees, he hooked me up with someone who knew someone else, who was willing to rent me his locker. That guy wanted 4000 for only two weeks, but I negotiated up to a whole month. I think I did the taxpayers proud.

I walked back inside, to finish off my schooling for the day, feeling like at least I had made a start. All I needed was to get hold of a computer and a phone, and that could wait until the next day.

I got off the bus early, partly because I always hated riding the school bus, and partly because I wanted to scout the local district. I was thinking about my ditch-kit again, about getting ready for whatever emergency came at me. I wanted to know how I could get away, and where I could hide, if it came to it. I didn’t think I’d have to run, but you never know.

I walked through the noisy sub-suburbs and into my own good-looking but boring neighborhood. I walked past wooden fences, holly bushes, elm trees, and garages the size of small houses. Somebody had left a bike out, propped up in their porch, obviously not concerned about it getting stolen.

I passed a house where a little girl dressed in a coat and scarf was playing on a swing. For some reason, I again found myself wondering why the CBI had chosen such an up-market place to conduct their latest sting. They could have found some other house in the school district, for a quarter of the price. Maybe it made them feel safe up here on the hill, driving round in their Mercedes . Or maybe there was some other reason. I got back to the house, went to my room, and lay down, listening to music, and thinking over the day.

When I went down an hour later, DP was watching the news on TV from an easy chair. He didn’t pay any attention to me when I sat down. A few minutes later, AP came in and said hello.

“How was school?”

“It was okay, but boring.”


“Nothing much happened.”

“What were the teachers like?”

“Just Teachers.”

“What did you have for lunch?”

“A Sandwich.”

When DP went upstairs, I picked up the remote and flipped the TV over to the movie channel. I like movies. If I need to switch my brain off for a couple of hours, I just watch a movie.

The movie was about some guy working in the French resistance during WWII. I like those movies. I had vague memories of watching movies with my dad, when I was young. He would come home, stick his feet up after a hard day at work, and watch a movie. That’s about the clearest memory I have of him. That, and him and my mother arguing. When DP came back, he picked up the remote and, without saying anything, turned back to the news.

“We were watching that,” AP said, staring at him coldly.

“I was in the middle of the news,” DP said.

“It’s my fault,” I said. “Sorry.”

AP got up, and went into the kitchen. After the news finished, DP followed AP, then they both came back in.

“We’re going into town for a quick look around before dinner,” AP said.

“You coming?”

I couldn’t say no. The car was our safe haven, and they wanted me there, to question me. How did that old wartime poster go? Loose lips sink ships. Remember!

The enemy may be listening. We were out of the neighborhood and rolling down the slope into the town, before DP turned to me, and asked me what had gone on that day. He was no longer my father; he was Special officer DP Kundra, of the anti-teenage cyber terrorist squad, or whatever they were calling themselves that week.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“What happened?”

“It’s my first day. Nothing happened.”

“You didn’t see Arnav?”

“Yeah, I saw someone that probably is him, but I didn’t rush in and start saying hello. How would that look?”

“Drop the attitude, Sanskar..”

I didn’t think I had an attitude. I was just telling him that nothing had happened.

“I didn’t agree to give you a nightly report.”

“You’re here to work with us. That means keeping us informed.”

“I agreed to work with Daya.”

“You think that you are going to keep us out of the loop?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Just tell us what happened today. You don’t need the attitude.”

“What did I just say? Nothing happened.”

“He’s right,” AP said to DP. “It doesn’t make sense to waste time giving reports, when there is nothing to report.”

DP frowned at AP. “I thought you were working with me.”

“Now who’s got the attitude?” AP said.

“Look,” DP said, “this isn’t a democracy. He’s the criminal, in case you forgot.”

“I will give you a report when anything happens,” I said. “Until then, you either leave me alone or I walk. That’s what we agreed.”

“You walk right back to the Pizza Hut, smart guy? I’ll bet you will.”

“Can we stop arguing?” interjected AP. “It’s getting us nowhere.”

DP turned the car around, and began driving back to the house. But suddenly I spotted a bike shop, and said, “I want to get a bike.”

The store was surprisingly well stocked. I test-rode several bikes, and eventually chose a dual-suspension alloy mountain bike, which was overboard for trips to school, but I didn’t think that it would get stolen in my neighborhood.

Anyway, the CBI was paying.

This new bike was so light that I could lift it with two fingers. It was so smooth, it almost rode itself. My first mountain bike had been steel, and heavy. But it had been good for thousands of kilometers. I rode that piece of junk over half of the capital.

Back at the house, I put the bike in the garage. I noticed that there were two his and hers bikes already in there. At the table, DP looked tired and annoyed. He was drinking beer straight from the bottle. He’d been out all day, I figured, probably really working hard. The fatigue he was showing was probably real—the tiredness of a thirty-something who has to travel an hour to work and another hour back. I heard him burp quietly, from the beer, and he noticed me looking at him. He seemed slightly drunk.

After we had finished eating, he said, “That was good,” to AP.

“You’re welcome,” AP said coolly.

I seconded it. “It was great.

“Chicken and vegetables. Not exactly adventurous cooking,” AP said.

“Do you want to go anywhere tonight?” DP asked her

“What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know. A look around town, maybe?”

“Not tonight. Let’s go tomorrow instead.”


Suddenly DP started talking about how the police caught some criminals raiding a local bank, and AP nodded, adding the occasional comment.

“This guy,” DP said, shaking his head as he demonstrated with his hand, “came out of the bank and ran straight into the road, and got mowed down.”

I was surprised at how quickly DP and AP had gotten over the argument. I sat, listening to the conversation, while I thought back over the argument.

Unlike the arguments I had seen between my real parents, no threats had been made, and nothing was thrown. Nobody slammed any doors, and nobody left, never to be seen again. My new parents just sat there, talking about local events. It was a perverse parody of the nuclear family that left me with the feeling that I had to be alone.

I went to my room, and sat with the light off, looking out at the pristine suburb, dimly lit in the autumn darkness. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Here, everything seemed to be in its place. Maybe I could just stay here for the rest of my life, I thought. Sanky Kundra, student from @##$## High, rides bikes, and excels in computers, math, and science. Thinking about how my life had turned out, it seemed crazy to me. How had I got here?

I closed my eyes, and thought back over my life. I had once lived in a house like this when my parents were married. I had little memory of it, but I recalled a large house in a quiet suburb in Washington State. I also remembered an argument, and waiting for my father to return. I waited, and waited, always trusting that he would come back. But he never did.

After that, I moved with my mother to an apartment. She got a job at an MNC.

When her new friends came around, they would party and play music and dance. She worked the late shift, and in the evenings I stayed with a neighbor, Mrs. Raheja, until I was ten, and no longer needed a babysitter.

I made my own breakfast and dinner, and watched television on my own. It was around that time that my unusual fascination started. I remember the first time.

I had been sitting in a bank one day, waiting for my mother to finish her payment works. I was bored and absent-mindedly gazing at an oversized display check that was hung on the bank wall. In those days, people still used paper checks instead of credit cards, and that big cardboard check reminded me of a TV program on bank fraud that I had seen a few nights before

In the TV special, a convicted fraudster described how he had made millions of dollars by altering bank checks. All paper checks came with a unique serial number printed on the bottom, written in magnetic ink that both computers and people could read.

This number indicated which branch the check got sent to for processing. By changing one of those numbers, the criminal had prevented the check from being properly routed. The computer would try to read the number, would flag it as unreadable and hence unroutable. A bank teller would have to manually examine it.

He’d see that all the numbers were visible, with no tears or flaws in the check, and would put it back into the automatic processing pile, to circle through the computer once again.

The fraud was only discovered when the check was so worn out that it wouldn’t go through the machine anymore. By that time, the forger had passed check after check, and had escaped to the Bahamas with the loot. I remember waiting in that bank, looking up at that huge check and being disappointed that I couldn’t come up with my own scam. I was really beaten up about it, because I wasn’t smart enough, even though I was still only eleven.

Months later, I saw a movie about a bank heist. The next day, while I was waiting in the bank once again, and looking at that oversized check in a bored haze once again, I suddenly got an idea for my own scam. I devised a totally new type of check fraud. What if I did it the other way around? What if I changed one of the computer-read magnetic numbers on the check, leaving the visible ink numbers intact?

The teller who manually examined the numbers would still be able to look up the branch code, and send the check to the right branch.

But again, the computer wouldn’t be able to process it, and it might be rerouted or returned once again. That would require maybe two extra journeys, which meant that the bogus check might take longer to discover than the standard number scam. That might mean extra time for the con man to pass his bogus paper, and make his getaway.

I didn’t know for sure whether my ruse would work, and obviously I would have had to get my hands on some magnetic ink. But if it did work, I would potentially have an even better check dodge than the standard routing scam.

I tried to think back to the TV program. Had they already discussed that method for bank robbery? I didn’t know, and I never found out.

But, original or not, workable or not, I was immensely happy that I had persisted until I had come up with my own way of subverting the system.

I was young, and of course I never actually put the idea into action, but I always remembered that happy eureka moment. Best of all, I had, for a few weeks at least, found an outlet for my curiosity and my energies

Every boy watches movies and thinks how glamorous it would be to be a master criminal. But it wasn’t the profits of crime that I was interested in. I got fired up with the same curiosity and enthusiasm whenever I saw a documentary on the space shuttle or a big engineering project—something that was so difficult that it took years to complete. These engineering achievements required planning and ingenuity. I used to imagine myself standing on the site, looking over plans, arranging the work, organizing the workers, and making a blueprint into a reality. What difference did it make if it was a bank heist or a 200-story bank building organization that I was working on?

More and more, I began looking around for things that I could devote my enthusiasm to. But, of course, living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, there was literally nothing to do except crime.

One boring day, I noticed that baby strollers set off security alarms in stores, and almost without meaning to, I put together a method for shoplifting. I found a way of scamming the library into issuing me with two cards, though I hardly used the one I already had. I’d read stuff, remember it, and then stick the book back on the shelf.

One time, I talked two cops into giving me a lift home from the city, because I wanted to see what it was like in a cop car, and what the cops were really like. Another time, I found out that the local video rental store had policies that could be exploited, such as the one where if they didn’t have a title in, you’d get it free next time. There I was, an eleven-year-old kid, hated by all of the clerks, because I was making a game out of it—trying to figure out when the most in-demand titles would be unavailable, which was the opposite of what everyone else was doing.

It was all kid’s stuff. But looking back, it seems to me that these trivial misdemeanors were a foundation for a more important life—a life that I didn’t yet know about but felt was waiting for me. My mother’s attempts to involve me emotionally in her struggle for existence were obliterated by my constant struggle to find an outlet for my energies, by learning more and more about the world around me.

So when one day a classmate asked me to join a conference call that he was arranging over the public phone system, I took him up on the offer immediately. He assured me that the phone call would be free, since he had found a way to cheat the phone company out of paying for calls. I agreed, and that night I was introduced to the pastime of phone hacking, known as “phreaking.”

Here was a new world—a network of phones and exchanges, of blue boxes and black boxes, of phreaks (as my new friends called themselves) and hackers, and it was massively more complex than the other trivial systems I had been toying with.

It was an endless connection of phone systems and subsystems. It went all around the world. It stretched from the White House to the Kremlin. Immediately, I wanted to know everything possible about it.

Some nights I went dumpster diving for trash at the local phone company offices, looking for documents that I thought might hold valuable information. Some nights I phoned faraway telephone exchanges, and pretended to be a phone company employee, extracting clues about the phone system.

Soon, I was making free phone calls to Iceland, Holland, and Australia.

“What’s the weather like there?” I would ask a puzzled Icelander, who asked in broken English who I was, and why exactly I was calling him.

Then one night, about three months after I had started phreaking, I had a close call when a tough-looking phone company engineer, complete with utility belt, knocked on the door of the apartment, and started asking awkward questions.

But it didn’t matter. By that time, my new friends had already introduced me to the world of computer hacking

I met up with Laksh and his crew of hackers at a computer convention. They were high school kids, but they seemed to know everything about computers. I didn’t really know or care what their real names were. They all went by fake names, known as “handles,” which they had given themselves: Knight(Laksh), Blizzard, Darkness, and several others. They thought that they were agents working against an unfair system.

But I didn’t mind that, because they showed me Unix and C. These were the tools that engineers used to create software systems. These operating systems, languages, and programs seemed utterly inaccessible at first. But what looked like rawness, I soon realized meant flexibility. It was like having a pick-up truck instead of a Mercedes.

Once I had learned how to hack systems, I learned how to hack into them—
war dialing, pretexting, brute forcing. I spent days, weeks, and months learning how to use hacker tools to gain access to, and complete control of, remote computer systems. School didn’t matter anymore. The whole of the year was taken up in hacking and cracking.

There was an unspoken competition to find out who among us could do the best hack. But after just a year, I saw no serious competition, except maybe Laksh. I knew then that I was going to be the fastest draw in the new frontier.

Soon, I had outgrown my classmates. My hacking ‘kung-fu’ went beyond anything they possessed. I came to realize that they were nothing more than ‘script kiddies,’ downloading and altering other people’s work.

They weren’t like me. They didn’t have my enthusiasm or skills. They had all the gear, but no original ideas. I was the opposite: I couldn’t afford any hardware. I scavenged stuff from dumpsters, and spent hours in the public library learning how to put it all together. I also learned how to get free and open source software to run on it.

I had the names of the authors of those loaned books burned into my brain, because I found myself reaching for those books a hundred times a day, and renewing them as often as possible.

When I finally had a system that I could use, I began to look for things to do with it. It was then that I read about all the great hackers, and those people became my role models: I wanted to be just like them

There was Kevin Mitnick, who beat the world’s largest communications companies at their own game. There was Gary McKinnon, who hacked into the Pentagon. I read about Vladimir Levin, who robbed Citibank of $10 million. I laughed over stories of Kevin Poulsen, who won a Porsche from a radio phone-in by commandeering the entire Los Angeles telephone network. I kept all these people in my mind. With every keystroke, I knew that I was coming closer to my goal. I knew that I wouldn’t get caught; I was too careful for that.

I would get out of my miserable existence; I would get somewhere worth living in. I would have all the best equipment, and have lots of fun. I would travel abroad to whichever country was currently holding a hacker convention. I would stay in the best hotels. I wanted to teach people—to inspire the next generation. Kids in their bedrooms, wanting to escape their miserable lives, would look to me as their own role model: Sanskar Maheshwari, who had made a fortune selling banks their own security holes.

I began to hack websites, and leave my electronic calling card. I cracked email servers, and left the owners a little surprise. I found network print devices in remote offices, and left a fortune cookie for the next person at the printer. I began accruing user accounts all around the world. I started installing backdoors into every computer system I could find, from local businesses to national institutions. I got an account at NASA. I got root privileges at the world’s second largest bank. I even got my foot in the door of the Pentagon . . .

But now I was back in high school, in some ways starting over……

LOL i know it’s too long but enjoy reading

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