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Volume 3, Number 7
July, 1998

Tales of the Geek Lord

by Pelican Smith

Last night I saw a wonderful thing. I saw fear from powerful men. I saw indecision from leaders. I saw the director of the CIA (George Tenet) and of the NSA (Lt Gen Kenneth Minihan), sitting down at a table in front of a Senate hearing committee to admit one thing: They fear computers.

People don't talk about computer fear like they used to, not since the eighties, when it looked like some robot would take over all of our jobs. That was probably our countries first real bout with technophobia. It was the first time that old Joe got all in a ruckus about them Japanese gadgets taking the bread out of kids mouths. I guess a couple people did lose assembly line jobs in the big automotive plants, but they probably went on to get other jobs, perhaps even better.

It wasn't just your blue collar workers to face the fear of losing their jobs to computers either. Accountants were running scared for a while. Even programmers idly considered the fact that someone out there might write that one program which writes programs. Fortunately, none of this came to reality. Accountants and programmers are busier than ever, and will go head to head with any software package, any day.

If we no longer fear losing our jobs, America seems to have many new reasons to fear computers. Like the reason why the CIA and NSA directors put on their best duds and stolled into the capitol building -- Information Warfare. The plot looks something like this: Sadaam logs into AOL one night and, using a couple nifty tricks, breaks into a series of computers to hide his trail. Eventually he gets into a name server at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, and uses it to launch the real attacks. From that point, he shuts down the computers controlling our banks, our telephones, and our air traffic control systems. He then goes through the military sites, erasing data, and preventing our military leaders from being able to communicate. America goes up in flames.

Other than the flames part, it seems like far too much of this plot could come true. In 1997 a group of NSA scientists launched an unannounced attack against our nations infrastructure called operation Eligible Receiver. They obtained access to a mock representation of the West Coast power grid, and gained root level access to numerous military sites. To make matters worse, they apparently used scripts taken off of hacker web sites out on the Internet for anyone to use.

It's not just the hawks that fear computers. The doves also are in turmoil, mostly one two opposing issues. One, that little Billy will find devil worship/rock music/pornography/pedophiles on the Internet. The other fear is that our government might try to do something about it. It's a quandry. We want the government to keep the neighbors kids safe from the dark alleys of the Internet, but we don't want the government to tell us how to raise our kids.

Then there is the "Number of the Beast" fear, where people start putting digital ID's under their skin. That way, if you walk by a fax machine and it starts to go off, you had better grab it, because it is probably for you. It's a nifty concept, but America is just too paranoid to do this. Besides, who winds up with digital ID number 666?

And then there is our last fear. Our most pressing fear of computers. The fear that, on January 1 of the year 2000, the following code will execute:
if Year < 01
 Launch (NUKES);

It's the Year 2000 bug. That nasty little COBOL critter which can stop our paychecks from being delivered. Lots of people are overreacting about this one, and lots of people are not taking the issue seriously enough. Is it real? Oh yes. It is. Of course, I've never seen 2000, but I can tell you a story about a leap year bug that I ran across in 1992. I was working on a PDP 11/70 running some communications software. When April 1 rolled around, my PDP, and everyone elses, shut down. Our first reaction was that we had caught an April Fools Day virus, but it turns out that the programmers had not taken leap year into consideration, and the computer had gasped along through March before calling it quits on the first day of April. An entire global network went down. So, do I believe that things can go wrong on January 1, 2000?

Man, I guarantee it.
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