Steal this data: Volunteer spies in the night

It's no ordinary day on the job when a tech team is sent on a top-secret mission to copy a suspect user's computer files

There I was, sneaking into a dark office with a flashlight and a backup disk. No, it wasn't a movie -- just one very surreal day at work.

Enough years ago that I can share this story, I was employed at a company that contracted out support staff to various organizations. I was assigned to a military location, along with a handful of other techs.

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The day began as most any other. My company's VP called my team leader, "Sally," promptly at 10 a.m., as he did every day. During these phone conversations, she would give a brief status report and they'd review the progress on various projects. The call usually took five minutes.

But this one was different. At the end of the conversation, the VP asked Sally to call him back from a location outside of the office building.

Worried, she briefly told us the VP wanted to talk to her privately -- then she vanished. This was ominous. Was someone about to be fired? Had our contract been terminated? We tensely awaited Sally's return.

When she got back, we were told there would be a face-to-face meeting with the VP that afternoon. All of us must report. In the meantime we were not to discuss it at all. We were brimming with questions, but there was nothing more. Sally was stern and tight-lipped.

That was the longest five hours of my life as I tried to go about my work acting like nothing was wrong and watching the seconds and minutes inch along. Finally, the wait was over.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

We gathered in the operations room at at the appointed time. Sally met us there, and we were in for another turn in the unfolding drama: We were to meet the VP at the loading dock. We were also ordered to take separate routes and elevators.

We must have looked a bit like mice in a maze as we tried to find our separate paths through the large building. When we'd all made our way to the location, we stood in a circle facing each other and were told to watch for people in our line of sight. The security cameras, we were told, had been turned off. The VP spoke in hushed tones and told us to keep our voices down.

"During a routine oversight committee hearing recently," the VP said, "the admirals were questioned about a discrepancy in a budget for one of their commands. They were unable to answer the questions put to them. The captain responsible for that part of the budget was not immediately available for questioning. But the admirals identified for the committee all the people responsible for preparing that part of the budget report."

As soon as we learned the name of the captain, we groaned. That captain? The demanding, deal-making, obfuscating, aloof captain? The one with the incredibly surly senior aide? The one who could do no wrong? We all dreaded our encounters with him.

The committee had contacted the president of our consulting company and asked for help. We were to provide the committee with disk images of all the machines that belonged to people who worked for the captain. Of course, disk images of the captain's machines were to be provided as well. He had three. Nobody knew why he needed three PCs -- he never let support people touch them.

One of us asked why backup tapes were not sufficient. For one thing, we were told, the committee did not trust the office's network administrator. That raised the hair on the back of my head -- I relied on that admin frequently and had assumed complete honesty. Second, we were reminded that the tapes would not contain deleted files. That made sense. The disk images would be analyzed for file fragments and should be able to recover deleted files. And third, the captain must not know that any information was flowing to the committee and we were not to tell anyone about it while the investigation was going on.

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