© Copyright 2005 Kurt Snyder

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A Secret Message

 

One day after work, I left the Iridium facility to drive to my brother's house. I had to cross the Potomac River at a ferry crossing connecting Virginia with Maryland. Just on the other side of the crossing was a main road named Whites Ferry Road that went to the left, leading eventually to other major routes. If you turned right after the ferry crossing, you would continue down a dirt road. After having used this crossing ten or fifteen times, I never saw any vehicles go down that dirt road. The dirt road was marked by a sign labeled 'River Road'. There was another major road named 'River Road' that I knew about which was located ten or fifteen miles down river. I wondered whether the two roads connected. For some reason, I decided to take that dirt road on the right to see where it went. After turning onto the road, I noticed most of the other cars had gone to the left as usual, except for a van about 200 feet back taking the same route that I was. I thought 'Hmmm. I wonder where that guy is going?' I drove a short distance down this road and it turned into a paved road. I continued on it for another mile or so. The van was still behind me. I continued several more miles, until finally, the road led back to Whites Ferry Road. The van was still behind me. We had made a half circle and come back to Whites Ferry Road. However, it was not a shortcut. It was definitely the long way around. So, where was this other guy going? Obviously, he didn't know. He was following me! I stuck my hand out the window and motioned to the van to pass me. He didn't. I motioned again. He didn't move. I waited for a few more seconds. Finally, the van passed by me and turned right onto Whites Ferry Road...the same direction we would be heading if I had originally turned left at the ferry crossing, but at least a few miles out of the way. Was he following me? Maybe. Did it mean anything? Maybe. Maybe it was a private detective. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

I was very distraught that Iridium might have hired a private detective to follow me. I couldn't know whether it was true or not. I thought it might be the truth. I didn't want to be a "problem" for them. I didn't want them to spend money on surveillance of me. Would the detective report back to them about our circuitous route back to Whites Ferry Road? What would they think about this? They would think I was checking to see if someone was following me...a sure sign of a paranoid mind. This was not the image I wanted to project. A paranoid person is a crazy person, and a crazy person is often thought of as someone to fear. I thought I was becoming a person they would fear. A potential problem. I thought the logical choice for a potential problem was to get rid of it. This could mean they might cancel my contract. I didn't want that to happen. What could I do? I had to do something. I had to let them know I wasn't crazy. Also, I had to stop behaving abnormally. I had to get over my performance anxiety and other paranoid behaviors.

Then, I started to think about my computer system. Was it also the target of surveillance? Maybe. But, a private detective would probably not be able to take control of my computer system. It would take computer experts with highly sophisticated tools and access to the appropriate networks to target my computer system individually. I thought, maybe they didn't have control of my computer system. On the other hand, I completely believed that the intelligence agencies would be training their tools on the Iridium project.

I had to communicate somehow to the Iridium staff, and especially the security chief, Bill, that I was not crazy. I had to let them know that I was not going to be a problem for them. I had to let them know that I was a 'normal' person. How could I do this? I could not communicate with Bill directly, because I might be wrong about the reality of the situation. Maybe there was no private detective following me. Maybe nobody was observing me at all. Maybe all these thoughts were just futile worrying on my part. If I went to talk to Bill, and nothing was happening, he would definitely begin to think I was paranoid and crazy. My solution would become the problem. No. I could not communicate with Bill directly. If I was going to communicate anything to him, it would have to be done through the observers themselves, through an unconventional channel. That way, if the 'observers' were not real, nothing would be communicated. And, if they were real, he would hopefully get the message.

I decided that it was still likely the intelligence agencies were monitoring Internet activity concerning the Iridium project. I thought, perhaps they didn't have control of my computer, but most likely they could pick up intelligence simply by monitoring the Internet. I would send them a message. I had read about tools that intelligence agencies use to filter information based on key words found in email and other transmissions. These transmissions are intercepted in a variety of ways, and then filtered based on their content. Yes, I thought I could send them a message using key words. But, it had to be a very carefully crafted message.

Maybe an intelligence agency would pick up my message and forward some information about it to the security chief. He might receive it. Perhaps. But, what would I say? I couldn't blatantly say something about being followed, because I'm not absolutely certain I was being followed. Also, what kind of response should I expect? If he receives the message from an intelligence agency, he certainly couldn't acknowledge his source. And, if I send the wrong type of message, they might get the idea that I definitely am crazy. I had to be careful. I decided to craft an ambiguous message with very general language. I came up with something like the following:

"This is for you guys at the Iridium Master Control Facility, in Ashburn. I understand you want to collect more information on me but doing it this way is uneccessary. Why not just come talk to me directly about your concerns?

I know that I might project the wrong image at work. I really just want to do a good job, the best job possible. I have an anxiety problem related to work performance. I worry constantly about people watching me, especially the cameras. They make me nervous. But you don't have to be concerned about my demeanor. You don't have to be afraid of me. I get nervous. I have never posed a threat to anyone. If you want more information, just come talk to me on a one-to-one basis. Perhaps at hockey, or some other venue."

Of course, this message was directed mostly at the security chief, Bill. The hockey venue that I mentioned was intended to mean our friendly after work games.

I decided first to send this message to myself at my America Online account dgtls@aol.com. Perhaps THEY could intercept it there. But then afterwards, I decided this was unlikely. At the time, I was online by dial up with America Online, and sending an email directly to myself--It probably would never leave the America Online networks. I wasn't sure they had the ability to monitor my computer directly. So, I decided to send it to my email forwarding service. The second time, I sent the email to kurt_snyder@bigfoot.com. This would force the email to be routed over the Internet, and possibly intercepted by the Intelligence Agencies. If THEY weren't monitoring emails concerning the IRIDIUM MASTER CONTROL FACILITY, then most likely no one would get the message but myself. All of this was done with the intention that somehow, my anxiety would be diminished.

A few days later I was back to work at Iridium. I noticed on that particular day that I did not see one security guard walking around the building all day. Normally, they would make their rounds, checking exit doors, marking off things on their clipboards. But I did not see them. I thought, 'That's odd!". Also, when I looked at the cameras this day, I noticed they were never pointed at me, not one time. I thought "How strange!" Toward the end of the day, I ran into Bill, the security chief. He said, 'Hey, I think Jim wants to talk to you." "Who's Jim?" I said. "He works in your old room, in the back, past the lockers".

I used to have a small room where I kept maintenance supplies behind the locker room. But lately, it had been taken over by a few guys who I thought were Technical Support Staff. Of course, at Iridium, virtually everyone was some sort of "Tech Support". I didn't really know who Jim was but I said, "OK, I'll go talk to him".

I went into the back room and there was a very large guy sitting at a workstation. I had seen him around the building a few times. I said, "Are you Jim?" "He said, "Yeah! Hey, listen, I have some tickets to a Hockey game tonight and I wanted to know if you want to go?" "I thought, "I've never been to a hockey game...it might be interesting. Sure, I'll go". I also thought, "I wonder why he's asking me instead of someone else?"

Jim gave me my ticket to the game and we drove there separately. I got there late and found my seat. Our seats were both together. He was already there. Soon after the game started, He said, "Why don't we get something to eat afterwards?" I agreed, and after the game we went to a Chinese restaurant nearby. We started talking while we were waiting for our food to arrive. He started asking me about my job, and how long I had been working as a handyman. "Do you like your job? Do you like working at Iridium?" Then, somehow we started talking about the Internet. He started asking me more questions. "How much do you know about computers? How much do you know about networks and the Internet? Do you know anything about network security?" I don't recall exactly how I responded, but I mentioned that I thought the Internet was great, except that it provided a new avenue for people with the right tools to monitor our activities. I told him I thought that the more we move towards an electronic and cashless society, the more government could exert control over us by monitoring our communications and our transactions. Then he said, "I think everyone should know everything about everyone else. Information is great. The more the better. I'm all in support of monitoring communications. If you're not a criminal, you have nothing to worry about." I then asked him, "What do you do at Iridium?" He said, " I'm the Network Administrator. I also work with network security." He told me, "At Iridium, we have tools to monitor emails. Email is filtered based on certain key words. We also monitor other Internet traffic. Most people have no clue that we're doing it. But I don't see anything wrong with it. If you're doing what you are supposed to be doing, you shouldn't be concerned. In fact, we've fired several people for inappropriate use of company resources." Later on, he mentioned the hockey games again. "Do you like hockey a lot? Do you want to come to any more games? I bought $1000 worth of tickets. Do you think that's going overboard?" Soon, we finished our discussion. "Thanks for the ticket" I said. Then, I left.

Afterwards, I thought, "What just happened to me there? What was all that about?" I was certain he was talking about monitoring people on the network at the Iridium Facility, and not on the Internet, but why would he tell me that? I kept thinking afterwards, "Maybe they received my message. Maybe they misunderstood what I meant about hockey. Maybe he was discussing monitoring of email to see what else I would say about it. Maybe they are concerned that I know about their monitoring activities. A thousand dollars worth of tickets. Wow. Maybe they got the wrong idea from my email. But why didn't I see any cameras pointed at me today? Except for the security chief, I didn't see any security guards either. Hmm. Maybe they got the right idea. I just didn't know what to believe--but I made the assumption that somehow they had received my message.

Later, I thought to myself, THEY are not going to stop following me or observing me simply because I sent them a message. They are going to follow me and spy on me until they are satisfied that I am not a threat. I thought to myself, I must convince them that I am not a threat. I have to stop being nervous at work. I have to stop looking at the cameras.

I began to employ a strategy--I tried to become a very good actor. Even if I was extremely anxious, I sometimes tried to imagine that I actually was in fact the focus of everyone's attention, and that all eyes were trained on me. I imagined that I was on a stage. I imagined that I was the best actor in the world. My job was to act as normal as possible. I tried to pretend I wasn't concerned about any cameras, or anyone watching me. I tried to behave as if I was extremely confident about my work.

In the short term, this thespianism had some positive effects. To an observer, I think I would have seemed less paranoid. My anxiety was somewhat reduced. However, the mental energy required to maintain the barrage of counteractive thoughts left me drained and mentally exhausted at the end of the day. In addition, the acting reinforced the idea in my mind that people were in fact watching me. It put me in mental turmoil. So, I didn't maintain this act for very long.

At some point during that first year at Iridium, I began to wonder whether people were talking about me. This thought usually occurred to me when I overheard conversations taking place nearby. I would be working, and I might overhear the following exchange between two people:

"Hey, why do you think he's doing it that way?"

"I don't know, maybe he doesn't know any other way to do it."

"But why is it taking him so long, he should have been finished a long time ago!"

"Maybe this is the first time he's done something like this"

"Maybe he just takes his good old time. Maybe he just doesn't have a good work ethic."

"I don't know. Don't you think we should mention this to his supervisor?"

"Perhaps. But we might be causing problems for him. I don't know if that's our business. Are we justified?"

"What do you mean? We have to wait for him to finish to do our own work. He's holding us up. He's right in the way"

"Maybe he's doing the best he can."

I would wonder if they were talking about me. I started to wonder this quite often when I overheard people talking. Most of the time I never actually believed they were talking about me, but I had a strong suspicious feeling that it was true.

At this time, I did not have a boss at Iridium to whom I reported on a regular basis. My duties were assigned to me by a variety of people, including Matt, and Bill, the security chief. In reality, I had very little guidance on a daily basis. This would soon change. A short while later, Iridium hired a Facility Manager named Bob to take charge of managing the maintenance of the building. He was to become my new boss.

At first, I was very suspicious of Bob. I wondered whether he had been hired specifically to deal with me. As I worked with Bob over the next several months, I came to have great respect for him. He was a very hard worker. He came to work early, and he left late, every day. He was a man of action. He was also very organized. When I arrived at work, he always had a list prepared ahead of time with tasks for me to do that day. He seemed to be able to judge my abilities very well. He never gave me anything I couldn't handle. He also seemed to be genuinely concerned about the people working with him. He was very supportive and always encouraged me in my work. Often, if we were working late, he would purchase dinner for us. He never asked me to reimburse him for this. Although I often asked him whether he had an expense account for these meals, he always avoided answering the question. I assumed he bought the meals out of his own pocket. He also often gave me things. For instance, I did not have a good work jacket. So, he gave me one. (I still wear it today, 5 years later.) I came to look forward to working with him, and I began to trust him. However, I never abandoned the idea that somehow he might have been hired to deal with me, and would therefore be working directly for THEM. I thought perhaps part of his job was to get up close and personal with me.

© Copyright 2005 Kurt Snyder

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