Dragovich had been at the hotel with Vedrov and his spies for most of the afternoon. He felt secure now that he knew he was part of this brave new era that the Vory were about to embrace. He was excited by the new opportunities, having grown tired of needing to always guard his actions and words at Ekranotech. He was a fixer, a man who got the job done. Diplomacy had never been his strong point, and at Ekranotech he often had to pause when faced with a problem, to think it through. Particularly when it involved others who wouldn’t perhaps understand or appreciate his usual direct and blunt approach. He was eager to become involved once again with work that was more natural for him, that was in his blood.
Vedrov began by addressing Dragovich directly, pacing in front of the darkening windows, emphasising that the meeting was all about him.
“You’ve worked in technology for a while now, Anatoly, and you’ve witnessed and learned many new things. What I’m about to explain is a big change for us but I think you will understand where we are going and, more importantly, I think you will be able to see how you can help make this happen.”
Adrenalin coursed through Dragovich’s body; he was about to be introduced to the inner workings of the Vory and their future plans.
Over the previous two years the Vory, recognising the need to modernise, had set up a complex web of Working Groups throughout the world. Each was handled locally by technology experts that they’d recruited through the dark web, or by referrals from other disenchanted souls.
Vedrov explained how the beauty of the plan was in its simplicity, and that it could all be managed very efficiently. It required only a handful of people in key countries. People who knew the systems, could speak the language and who had the skills and the contacts. Project Golos, as it was known, was a daring move by the Vory and, if successful, it would transform how they operated. It would propel them on to greater things, ensuring they became one of the most powerful criminal organisations on the planet.
Project Golos had begun with a forensic study of the infrastructure of the global economy. In particular, the Vory wanted to understand how and why things went wrong; the recent calamitous economic collapse that spread globally from the USA over a decade was a very appropriate example, and had been analysed in great detail. The project grew into a complex and sprawling piece of work, and Vedrov had appointed his top people to a Support Group, responsible for overseeing developments and drawing the key conclusions.
Eventually, they had been able to create a phenomenally detailed blueprint which outlined the global economy’s infrastructure, covering stock markets, banking and investment, multi-national businesses, real estate and governments. It detailed anything and everything involved in how the world and its finances operated on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. The detail was granular, and they were now able to trace all critical processes and procedures right back to where financial decisions were made, even to the names of the individuals who made them.
The findings provided an important foundation, but by launching cyberattacks on two of the most subscribed-to business social network sites globally, they had also acquired the personal details relating to every individual who had a role to play in managing the global economy, no matter how big or small. Their names and locations, contact details, employers, job titles and who they were linked to or connected with.
Vedrov instructed Brotinoff to demonstrate some examples of how this data would be useful, using the large wall-mounted screen on which were displayed a number of files, images and charts. “You see this, Anatoly?” said Vedrov, pointing at the images above them. “This demonstrates how we have been able to learn and become familiar with the whole process. It has taken a great deal of time, a significant amount of investment and coordination but I believe we are getting close.”
He indicated to Brotinoff to begin by explaining the finer points regarding the recent economic collapse. Brotinoff was standing in front of the touchscreen and reached up, tapping one of the images with his finger, so that it expanded into a separate tabbed format. The screen displayed a number of assumptions in the form of a flow chart, each piece of information affecting another. It detailed how the US real estate markets were structured and funded, and how this eventually had a knock-on effect to banking and investment strategies when loans were defaulted on by homeowners, and US property prices plummeted. It showed how stocks and shares were then subject to panic-selling, and the resulting bailouts that governments had to initiate at the cost of billions to the general public. It was a simple yet frighteningly accurate portrayal of a particular aspect of the global economic crash. Brotinoff touched the screen again to minimise the file.
Vedrov spoke again. “Anatoly, we can look at this from a number of perspectives but there is one common thread to all of it,” he said. “Whether it is mortgages, banking, property prices, or stock market valuations, there is a common denominator – people.” He emphasised each point he was making with his fist in the palm of his hand. “Human beings. Fund managers, investors, bankers, finance ministers. Whatever they call themselves and whichever role they play. It is all about technology being managed by people.”
Dragovich was still hanging on to the detail as Vedrov continued to reveal more of their findings.
Their main focus had been on how the most recent crash had occurred, like a domino effect, one event creating another, each growing in magnitude and having a greater impact as it cascaded around the globe. Security systems were in place to mitigate risk in most areas but did nothing to limit the damage of this catastrophic man-made disaster. Cybersecurity had addressed many aspects of global economic activity but wasn’t able to predict or prevent decisions being made or instructions being issued by key people in vital roles at critical points in time.
There was no easy way to follow the trail, either, to evaluate and identify where things had gone wrong, how it could be avoided in the future and where accountability or responsibility lay. Random articles had been published since disaster had struck the world’s economy, many pointing the finger of blame at individuals – billionaire hedge fund managers, rogue government officials, maverick entrepreneurs, or corporate tycoons and directors. Individuals whose actions caused others to behave in a disruptive and dangerous manner, creating damage that spread like a disease, compounding the situation and ultimately leading to the final meltdown.
Over the following decade or so things had gradually recovered. Austerity was no longer the buzzword, and economies around the globe began to emerge from the self-inflicted gloom to grow and develop once again. The question was, how this catastrophe could be prevented from reoccurring. Surely, if the same people – financiers, bankers, fund managers and so on – were in similar roles doing similar things, it was just a matter of time before a future generation screwed up and it all collapsed again?
Vedrov was bullish with his portrayal of the subject; it was something he had been the architect of, both in terms of his aspirations for the Vory, and of gaining a deep understanding of how the global economy was to become the future hunting ground for them. He continued to explain how, in the final stages of recovery, a new level of security measures was globally agreed by the United Nations and its member states. The existing safeguards were considered as robust, and an absolute minimum requirement for any organisation within the global economy, but governments around the world demanded additional levels that would safeguard the future.
Brotinoff approached the screen again, tapping it and bringing up new images, highlighting the final stages of global economic recovery. New international laws were passed specifying that additional biometric identification was required as a further mandatory step for all events involving financial transactions and decision-making throughout the global economy. The intention was to introduce infallible systems that could only be accessed and authorised by those who were appointed to do so. It would prevent lazy, sloppy or any unauthorised delegation, ensuring that decision-making was monitored and traceable and that another catastrophe could never happen again. The existing safeguards of electronic fingerprinting, retina scanning and facial recognition technology had already been upgraded to cover any cracks that had been detected.
To ensure that security levels were raised even higher, the latest technology that had been recommended in the UN’s report was next-generation biometric voice recognition. Prior to their upgrades, the existing security systems had been proven to be penetrable.
“You see Anatoly, you can recreate a fingerprint, duplicate a retina pattern, or copy a facial image. It has been tested and proven,” said Vedrov. “But voice recognition is far more difficult to reproduce, and no one has been able to successfully do it so far.”
Dragovich finally began to understand the scale of the Vory’s plans. Leaning forward in his chair, questions spinning around in his head, he knew he had to be patient and let Vedrov finish.
Vedrov was in his element now, bringing the final pieces of his master plan together. He continued to explain how the Vory knew that leading technology companies and institutions around the world had already been working with next-generation voice recognition software. In its simplest form it had already become a global phenomenon, with the boom in virtual personal assistants being sold by the big online retailers, computer giants and the social media platforms.
“We’ve even managed to infiltrate a leading university in the USA where there is a great deal of expertise in this field, and we now know that they are close to perfecting the level of technology that we require for our plans,” Vedrov said, pouring another coffee for himself after Dragovich declined.
Vedrov paused, savouring the steaming, rich liquid, and then continued his lesson in global economics. Dragovich listened intently as the Vory boss explained how, as the economic recovery had continued, several large technology companies had been brought together to create a world-class think tank specifically to address this new security requirement. The brief was to rapidly implement advanced voice recognition technology as a compliance measure for all participating organisations involved in the global economy. There were no exceptions. Those unable to meet the levels of compliance were either given more time and further support, or were branded as rogue elements and frozen out until they changed their ways. It had taken several years, but the economic community felt a new sense of pride, having learned from the tragedy of the previous decade and emerging fitter, stronger and more secure.
Vedrov continued. “Now, this all sounds … how would our foreign friends say … ‘hunky dory’,” he said, a smirk on his face as he mocked the western world’s attempts to fix the problem. “They may think that they have now created an impenetrable system, a super-secure lock, and one to which only they hold the key. But they failed to think about somebody simply making a copy of that key for themselves …”
Vedrov was immersed in his monologue, his voice quietened as he laboured the final points. “Let me explain further,” he said, as he sat down again opposite Dragovich. “We are now aware of AI technology that can be used to overcome any voice recognition system currently produced. It is so advanced that it can be adapted to counter any measures taken by voice synthesis security engineers, and overcome them. It thinks for itself, it learns by trial and error, and then adapts to create a new version of itself. They call it the evolutionary algorithm.” Vedrov then stood again, moved towards the large screen, turned, and looked directly at Dragovich.
“Can you imagine how simple it would be to obtain voice recordings of anyone and then duplicate their vocal patterns with this new technology? Recordings from a random unsolicited phone call, from media coverage, television and radio interviews or from any source, for that matter. Particularly now that we also have comprehensive details of the individuals involved throughout the global economy – the key decision-makers, those that are empowered to authorise or deny global financial transactions, the sort of people who collectively contributed to the economic meltdown.”
“Okay, I think I’m beginning to understand,” said Dragovich, still perched on the edge of his seat. “You plan to use this voice technology to unlock these new security measures or, at least, threaten to do so?”
Vedrov smiled, nodding slowly, confirming that his man knew exactly what this was all about. “Among other things, my friend, yes, exactly that.”
Dragovich was relieved. He wasn’t an expert on any of this, and had had to concentrate hard to keep up with Vedrov and his bold plans.
“So, the plan is to obtain this software from the Americans, correct?” asked Dragovich.
“No, Anatoly, not quite,” replied Vedrov. “We know a great deal about that technology but we don’t believe it is what we require to carry out our plans. What we do know though, through feedback from our people who are working on this, is that there is something out there that is exactly what we need. And I think our friend Radoslav at Ekranotech may have already stumbled across it.”
Vedrov had learned more about the Ekranotech deal with Varkasoft, and the fallout over the missing V-Works technology, as negotiations were completed. Having Dragovich as an insider at Ekranotech had been a profitable activity, but with him now removed they were blind. What they did have, was an understanding that an advanced AI voice technology had been developed called V-Works, and hidden from Radoslav. This was what Vedrov was really interested in and he was keen to hear more about V-Works, who was running it, exactly what they had, and how the Vory could get hold of it.
Safe from prying eyes and ears at Ekranotech, Dragovich was now able to reveal more about what he knew, particularly that Radoslav had almost seemed keener to have V-Works than the Varkasoft company itself. He’d put that down to greed and the opportunity to make even more money as he capitalised on the demand from the big US social media companies for the latest biometric voice technology.
He went on to explain how Radoslav was incensed when he learned he’d missed out on obtaining the AI technology, and had vowed to get even. Having been confronted by Tony over financial concerns, Radoslav had decided to act quickly, and that’s when the authorities had been called in, resulting in Tony’s arrest.
Dragovich removed his jacket; whether it was the adrenalin rush or the fact that the room was getting warmer, he’d begun to perspire. “When I left Ekranotech, I decided to do some of my own research on what was happening with the V-Works development, as I assumed there might be other opportunities along the lines of what you’ve described to me today,” he said, glancing between Vedrov and his two spies. “From what I learned, there is only a small team involved in completing the early V-Works developments, or Vvox as it is now being called. It appears that the son of Varkasoft’s previous owner is involved in the operation, and with some notable success so far. His name is Theodore. It’s not the complete picture, but it’s something that can be easily followed up on,” he concluded, hands sweating as he carefully raised the glass of water in front of him to his parched mouth.
“Excellent, that’s exactly what we were hoping for, Anatoly,” said Vedrov, pointing at Dragovich with both hands clasped. “The groundwork has been completed, the opportunities identified and the main targets agreed. We have the financial resources and ability to obtain what we need. With that AI technology we can move quickly to execute our plans, and that, my friend, is where your unique skills are required.” Vedrov smiled, then turned to Brotinoff, who was standing silently by the wall-mounted screen. “Sergei, bring me the Golos files and Anatoly’s flight details, please.”