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

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We were asked to volunteer. It had to happen tonight. Two employees from our company had been borrowed from other projects and were already in the building, waiting, with transit cases containing empty hard disks. We were not allowed to call home using the landlines in the building. The VP offered his cellphone, so we could call to make arrangements for late dinners. One of us declined further involvement and was promptly sent home "sick" for the rest of the day, with pay.

We were given an itinerary: where to go, what to do, and when. We had to leave the office at the normal time and meet up at another location in the building at a set time.

Arrangements were made with the officer in charge of base security, so we could be in the building after-hours. The security cameras would be turned off in the area we were visiting and the office unlocked. There would be no record of our presence. We were issued several sets of gloves and told to keep them on at all times. We all had clearances and our prints were on file. We had to be careful. And we had to avoid any people working in the building after-hours.


We all made it to the rendezvous point without incident and started our trek up to the captain's floor, our hearts pounding, yet remaining amazingly quiet and sneaky, despite our status as rookies. The lights were off as we skulked into the captain's office.

By flashlight, we took apart machines, so we could mirror their hard drives. We set up the equipment, then tried to quiet our nerves as the data transferred oh so slowly. Never before have I wished so hard that making backups was an instant process.

Several hours later we had packed up the transit cases and restored everything to look as we had found it. We left the building without ever being discovered.

The next morning those on our team were tense, daring to only quietly discuss the occasional question or rumor. Someone shared a partial transcript of the recent hearing, and we found out a few more details than the VP had shared. Millions of dollars were unaccounted for -- all in the captain's budget. The line items in his budget did not add up to the total. Yet, according to audit reports, the total amount budgeted had been spent. How? Where did the money go? We had no answers.

In the afternoon of the second day, we heard that the captain and two of his assistants had been called to testify before the oversight committee the next morning. It did not bode well for them.

Some of us saw their grim faces as they walked out of the building to go to the meeting. The surly senior aide was visibly sweating.

By the next morning, all of us had already searched the newspapers in case the hearing got coverage. It didn't. After the VP called Sally at the usual time, she quietly shared what she knew with us. The VP had said the committee was not satisfied with what they had heard from the captain and action would be taken. Nothing would affect our team. We would be informed when there was more information.

The fall

A few days later, the verdict: The budget for the one project that justified the jobs in the captain's command was to be reduced by half the following year. Afterward, it would hit zero. He would be marked for the rest of his career.

"They suggested he retire," said the VP. He had been defiant. The admirals passed word that we were not to do anything further in support of that command unless we obtained specific prior authorization. They planned to audit his department daily. His PCs were removed from the network and while connected to each other, were only allowed to talk with the rest of the LAN in the building through an audited gateway.

We no longer had to have any encounters with the captain or his staff -- which had always been unpleasant anyway.

We all went back to work and tried to forget they were up there -- the crew of a sinking ship. They were still there by the time some of us had moved on to other jobs. But I still think of that day as being one of the most bizarre I've ever had.

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This story, "Steal this data: Volunteer spies in the night," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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