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The Trail

The Trail

7 mins 191 7 mins 191

The Eurofidai Summit. 21st December 2017. In the heart of Paris, at the Novotel Paris Les Halles Hotel.


While the main conference hall was full of researchers presenting their papers on Finance and Insurance, a smaller room on the 4th floor had an interesting congregation. These were the best fraud and cybercrime investigators from all over Europe. They had a single point agenda. Compare notes to track the hacker who had become a headache for all the major European banks. Each of them had brought along their investigation case papers in the hope that they will find a common clue that will lead them to the mastermind.


In the months leading up to this meeting, someone had broken through all the sophisticated firewalls of these banking behemoths and had accessed critical data. The investigators were not even sure if it was one person or a large group synchronizing their individual work. While no major financial theft was reported, the bankers were worried more about data leaks. The information leak of their major client names and their fat bank balances could be a huge blow for the businessmen and politicians all over Europe.


Hours of discussions later, they had still not made any headway into the case. The only point they had agreed upon was that their best bet would be to track down all internet usage of the suspected individuals or organizations and try to make a connection. As it was post-midnight now, they decided to disperse and set up another meeting a few days later.


Data Mining scientists were pressed into service. People were hired to pore over millions of internet logs and find a connection between the incidents of the firewall breaches and the activities of the suspects. The US had a total of 1,579 data breaches in the entire year of 2017 and Europe was no better when it came to security. 


After days of analysis, the experts had narrowed down to a list of masked internet crusaders who could be responsible. But like in all cases, here too their real identities were secret and the only traces were their assumed digital monikers. Chat-Man, Son of Haul, The Real Glitch, Baby Zoomer were all names that floated in cyberspace creating havoc, while their owners could be sitting smugly in some café sipping coffee. A list of 30 such names was handed over to the digital forensics teams across Europe on 12th January 2018. 


Ivan Barnes was a 42-year-old software engineer, staying near the Local Government Office in Colomiers. As he and his wife, Natalie, walked back home from the nearby bakery La Fougasse, on the morning of 13th January, he casually mentioned to her about his new office assignment and how his team was one of the few tracking these criminals. Natalie, a part-time web designer, was excited to know more about it and Ivan gave in and showed her the list of names.


As she glanced through the names, one name stood out for her – Lo(ve)cket. While this name immediately rang a bell in her mind, she chose not to say anything to Ivan.


After Ivan left for office that day, she booted her laptop. She had stopped using her Hotmail email account years ago and had switched to the new email providers. Now she hoped she would still remember the password of the account. A few tentative keystrokes later, the inbox was open in front of her eyes.


She typed in the Search Criteria: “Emails received between 1st December 1997 to 31st January 1998”. In her mind, she thanked the owners of Hotmail who had not deleted 20-year old accounts and their user data. There were emails announcing the sale of Hotmail to Microsoft in December 1997. Sabeer Bhatia had overnight become the media darling.


As she glanced, through the emails of those 2 months, she found a few emails from her friend then, Eduardo Sanvil. They were studying together for their college degree and there were sparks of mutual affection.


Eduardo wanted to be world famous one day and had decided to leave college mid-way. Natalie could not talk him out of it, but they decided to go out on one last date on Valentine’s Day, Feb 1998. They spent that evening walking the streets hand-in-hand and finally came to the Pont des Arts bridge on the river Seine. The panels of the bridge were groaning under the weight of all the locks hanging there already, but tourists and locals were still adding more locks to it every day. Natalie realized that Eduardo had planned this in advance when he brought a heart-shaped lock (with ‘Love’ written on it) out of his coat pocket and handed it to Natalie.


She hooked the lock onto one wire tied to the bridge and Eduardo used the key to lock it. He gave the key to Natalie who flung it with all her might into the serene Seine. They burst into giggles and walked away from the Bridge towards the Catholic Church. Before separating, they promised each other to keep in touch and meet again in the future.


They had never seen each other again since. Eduardo continued to write emails to her for a few months, but they gradually stopped coming after 1999. Natalie later became a web designer, worked for a digital agency and was leading a simple life with Ivan, whom she met at work in 2001.


Today as she was going through those old emails, she found one where Eduardo had made a mention of their Seine bridge lock as Lo(ve)cket, the locket that was a witness of their love.


Could Eduardo be the same criminal? Natalie wondered. But this sounded too far-fetched, straight out of a Hollywood movie script. But this was too much of a coincidence to be ignored. It definitely was worth a check.


After an immense mental duel with herself, she narrated these incidents to Ivan that evening, who was intrigued and alarmed at the same time. He agreed that this was worth reporting to the authorities. After a meeting with the Investigating Officers and the Police Municipale, they agreed upon a plan. Luck was on their side.

 

On 10th February 2018, Natalie drafted a short email to Eduardo:

“It has been 20 long years since that magical evening on the Seine. Life has not been so rosy afterward. But I think we should meet once, to relive the memories of that beautiful time. Will it be possible for you to come and meet on the evening of Valentine’s Day?”


There was no reply from Eduardo.


Natalie was disappointed after 3 days, but the Investigating Officers were willing to take the chance.


Natalie, dressed up in a floral dress, her hair tied in a bun and with a small clutch in her hand, stood near the same spot where they had put up the lock 20 years ago. In 2015, the local council had decided to cut the locks in order to avoid damage to the Bridge and had removed a significant number of locks since then. But it still remained a popular spot for tourists, thanks to its reference in many movies.


The sun was setting and there was a nip in the air. Natalie was tired and her legs were hurting after standing for 2 hours. As the crowd was thinning, she glanced at her watch for what could have been the hundredth time.


Just then a man in a hat and with a long beard walked up to her. “Natalie?” he said.


“Yes,” she smiled. He smiled back. It was him alright.


She looked at a man standing a few feet away completely glued to his mobile phone screen. He looked up briefly and slipped the phone inside his pocket.


Three passerby people immediately pounced on Eduardo.


Love is the eternal thirst. Love is the only lasting elixir.

Love is the most beautiful stairway to heaven. Love is the most delicate trap of hell.


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