Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hacking Computers - Ghosting

Previously I talked about two of the three computer hacking methods: cracking and psi-jacking. (Check out this post for a refresher.) Now it's time to go into a bit more detail about the third and most complex method: Ghosting.

The term "ghosting" refers to the ability to literally project one's consciousness "into" the 'Net. In Psi-punk, the 'Net is treated like an alternate plane of existence, similar to the Astral Plane. Through use of electrokinesis (the ability to control electricity psionicly), characters can raise the frequency of their own electromagnetic fields to merge with the wireless spectrum that supports the 'Net and all other wireless communications. Particularly skilled individuals can raise their own field and that of others near them, effectively allowing them to bring passengers with them to the 'Net.

What’s Inside

Many science fiction movies of the 20th century attempted to depict what being inside a computer might look like, but every one of them got it wrong; the ‘Net was never designed with conscious thoughts and direct human interaction in mind. There is no user interface because it is not technically a human-created Virtual Reality. Zeroes and ones do not float about in the sky, and there are no circuitous highways.

Ghosts alter their own electromagnetic fields in such a way as to join the wireless spectrum around them, enabling themselves to move with and through it as easily as a computer broadcasts data.  They are able to sense nearby access points – literally any piece of connected technology – due to the large volume of data being passed through them. By zeroing in on an access point, a ghost can use his cyberpsi power to communicate with the system on a deeper level and gain entry to it, allowing him to further use or control the system.

While inside a system, ghosts and their passengers spoof the device into treating them like any other program. In effect, each ghost (including passengers) is a separate program that interacts individually with the environment. These programs must be appropriate for the type of device a ghost is in; electronic billboards are only capable of running programs related to audio and video, for example, while a mainframe computer server can run virtually any program imaginable.

Ghosts can use a device’s cameras (if available) to view the outside world from the machine’s perspective. When not looking through the lens of the machine, the world appears very different; in fact, ghosts cannot actually see their physical surroundings without using this technique. It may be wise to have a passenger keep watch while a ghost interacts with the computer on a deeper level.
As you can see from this excerpt, the 'Net wasn't designed for ghosts. Unlike other cyberpunk RPGs, entering the 'Net in Psi-punk isn't a Virtual Reality experience because characters don't plug themselves into a virtual world. Instead, they must communicate with their surroundings on a more ethereal level by sensing the flow of data around them and communicating with computers as if they were an active program.

Joining the wireless world is relatively easy, but entering, assuming control of, and manipulating a system is far more difficult. Ghosts must contend with security programs have have been specifically designed to thwart their techniques.

Ghosting into a system is far more insidious than a traditional hacking attempt.  Though hackers still exist and attempt to breech high-level systems every day, the majority of a company’s security dollars go in to preventing attacks from ghosts.  New, high-power, low-level security software has been developed specifically to thwart ghosting attempts, and some of that software can cause real injuries to anyone trying to bypass it.

These special security programs have a semblance of sentience to them that is difficult to comprehend. In a partnership rare amongst today’s megacorps, Macroware and Magicorp teamed up to develop a new form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) capable of using magic, generally electrokinesis. For all intents and purposes these programs have real, physical manifestations in the ‘Net and are one of the entities which ghosts can encounter.

Once the characters have bypassed security and entered a system, they may take control of its functions by running as active programs. Because the system already views them as software, no Computer Use checks are required on the part of the players. Instead, characters must use their own skills to help determine what they can do and how successful they are.

Taking Control

After a system’s security programs have been defeated, it is possible to take control of the system. This is the primary purpose of nearly all ghosting excursions, and thee reason megacorps spend so much money to prevent them.

Each ghost, including passengers, are treated as separate computer programs when inside a system. They may perform any action the system would typically be capable of, such as displaying ads on a billboard, withdrawing funds from an ATM, hijacking a vehicle (even if its owner is trying to operate it), or executing complex commands on a mainframe.

Characters who are inside a system and are not being faced by security software have free access to initiate commands. Those skilled at Manipulation might attempt to reprogram a billboard to display a specific ad or message, while characters skilled with Vehicles may attempt to operate infiltrated equipment. Any variety of skills may be useful when ghosting in a system; the ‘Net isn’t just the realm of characters with great Technical skills.

The difficulty to successfully employ a skill is still based upon the system’s Security Level, which also represents the complexity of its code. To successfully operate a truck with a Security Level of Superb, for example, a character must first succeed at a Superb Vehicle check.
I took this approach to allow all players at the table the opportunity to partake in ghosting excursions. If you've read some of my other posts on the matter, you'll know by now that I wanted to avoid the Netrunning issues that other games have faced; specifically, the boredom that non-hackers feel when a hacker and the GM sit down to do their own little side-game while the rest of the players are excluded.

It took a lot of time and consideration to come up with a method that is all-inclusive, but I feel like these rules fit the bill. Though I still think it is important for the hacker's skills to shine, I didn't want them to burn so bright as to cast shadows over everyone else.

There is a lot more to ghosting that hasn't been covered here, but we hope this basic first-look gives you an impression of the direction the game takes. As always, feel free to leave any questions or comments!