Short stories of old computer risks

By Les Earnest,
[From postings on the comp.risks moderated newsgroup, spring 1988. Here are the Usenet headers...]
    Newsgroups: comp.risks
    Subject: RISKS DIGEST 6.50, 6.51

    RISKS-LIST: RISKS-FORUM Digest   Monday 28 March 1988   Volume 6 : Issue 50

    Date: 28 Mar 88  1641 PST, 01 Apr 88  1620 PST
    From: Les Earnest 
    Subject: Short stories of old computer risks
Tired of viruses? I was just purging some old files and ran across a trilogy of true short stories that I posted on the Stanford bboards two years ago. The incidents described span a period of twenty years ending 25 years ago, but I think they are still amusingly relevant.

e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

Reading a book got me into early trouble -- I had an F.B.I. record by age twelve. This bizarre incident caused a problem much later when I needed a security clearance. I learned that I could obtain one only by concealing my sordid past.

A friend named Bob and I read the book "Secret and Urgent," by Fletcher Pratt [Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City, NY; 1942] which was an early popular account of codes and ciphers. Pratt showed how to use letter frequencies to break ciphers and reported that the most frequently occurring letters in typical English text are e-t-a-o-n-r-i, in that order. (The letter frequency order of the story you are now reading is e-t-a-i-o-n-r. The higher frequency of "i" probably reflects the fact that _I_ use the first person singular a lot.) Pratt's book also treated more advanced cryptographic schemes.

Bob and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to communicate with each other, so we put together a rather elaborate jargon code based on the principles described in the book. I don't remember exactly why we thought we needed it -- we spent much of our time outside of school together, so there was ample time to talk privately. Still, you never could tell when you might need to send a secret message!

We made two copies of the code key (a description of how to encrypt and decrypt our messages) in the form of a single typewritten sheet. We each took a copy and carried it on our persons at all times when we were wearing clothes.

I actually didn't wear clothes much. I spent nearly all my time outside school wearing just a baggy pair of maroon swimming trunks. That wasn't considered too weird in San Diego.

I had recently been given glasses to wear but generally kept them in a hard case in the pocket of the trousers that I wore to school. I figured that this was a good place to hide my copy of the code key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size and stuck it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.

Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach. I usually went by streetcar and, since I had to transfer Downtown, I wore clothes. Unfortunately, while I was riding the trolley home from the beach one Saturday, the case carrying my glasses slipped out of my pocket unnoticed. I reported the loss to my mother that night. She chastised me and later called the streetcar company. They said that the glasses hadn't been turned in.

After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we began to lose hope. My mother didn't rush getting replacement glasses in view of the fact that I hadn't worn them much and they cost about $8, a large sum at that time. (To me, $8 represented 40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the movies.)

Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who opened it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong to a Japanese spy and turned it over to the F.B.I. This was in 1943, just after citizens of Japanese descent had been forced off their property and taken away to concentration camps. I remember hearing that a local grocer was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese Army and had hidden his uniform in the back of his store. A lot of people actually believed these things.

About six weeks later, when I happened to be off on another escapade, my mother was visited by a man who identified himself as an investigator from the F.B.I. (She was a school administrator, but happened to be at home working on her Ph.D. dissertation.) She noticed that there were two more men waiting in a car outside. The agent asked a number of questions about me, including my occupation. He reportedly was quite disappointed when he learned that I was only 12 years old.

He eventually revealed why I was being investigated, showed my mother the glasses and the code key and asked her if she knew where it came from. She didn't, of course. She asked if we could get the glasses back and he agreed.

My mother told the investigator how glad she was to get them back, considering that they cost $8. He did a slow burn, then said "Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It has been the top priority in our office for the last six weeks. We traced the glasses to your son from the prescription by examining the files of nearly every optometrist in San Diego." It apparently didn't occur to them that if I were a REAL Japanese spy, I might have brought the glasses with me from headquarters.

The F.B.I. agent gave back the glasses but kept the code key "for our records." They apparently were not fully convinced that they were dealing just with kids.

Since our communication scheme had been compromised, Bob and I devised a new key. I started carrying it in my wallet, which I thought was more secure. I don't remember ever exchanging any cryptographic messages. I was always ready, though.

A few years later when I was in college, I got a summer job at the Naval Electronics Lab, which required a security clearance. One of the questions on the application form was "Have you ever been investigated by the F.B.I." Naturally, I checked "Yes." The next question was, "If so, describe the circumstances." There was very little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, "I was suspected of being a Japanese spy."

When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, "Explain this" -- pointing at the F.B.I. question. I described what had happened. He got very agitated, picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in the waste basket.

He then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying "Here, fill it out again and don't mention that. If you do, I'll make sure that you NEVER get a security clearance."

I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again disclosed that incident on security clearance forms.

On another occasion much later, I learned by chance that putting certain provocative information on a security clearance form can greatly speed up the clearance process. But that is another story.

Les Earnest

Kick the Mongrel

In a previous account I told how reading a book on cryptography led to my getting an F.B.I. record at the age of 12 and about subsequent awkwardness in obtaining a security clearance. I will now describe how I learned that putting provocative information on a security clearance form can accelerate the clearance process. First let me describe the environment that gave rise to this occurrence.

White Faces in New Places

In 1963, after living in Lexington, Massachusetts for 7 years, my wife and I moved to the Washington D.C. area to help set up a new office for Mitre Corporation. After three days of searching, we bought a house then under construction in a pleasant new suburb called Mantua Hills, near Fairfax, Virginia. I hadn't noticed it during our search, but it soon became evident that there were nothing but white faces in this area. In fact, there were nothing but white faces for miles around.

We expected to find some cultural differences and did. For example, people drove much less aggressively than in Boston. The first time that I did a Boston-style bluff at a traffic circle, the other cars yielded! This took all the fun out of it and I was embarrassed into driving more conservatively.

When I applied for a Virginia driver's license, I noticed that the second question on the application, just after "Name," was "Race." When filling out forms, I have always made it a practice to omit information that I think is irrelevant. It seemed to me that my race had nothing to do with driving a car, so I left it blank.

When I handed the application to the clerk along with the fee, he just looked at me, marked "W" in the blank field and threw it on a stack. I guess that he had learned that this was the easiest way to deal with outlanders.

Our contractor was a bit slow in finishing the house. We knew that there was mail headed our way that was probably accumulating in the post office, so we put up the mailbox even before the house was finished. The first day we got just two letters -- from the American Civil Liberties Union and Martin Luther King's organization. We figured that this was the Post Office staff's way of letting us know that they were on to us. Sure enough, the next day we got the rest of our accumulated mail, a large stack.

It shortly became apparent that on all forms in Virginia, the second question was "Race." Someone informed me that as far as the Commonwealth of Virginia was concerned, there were just two races: "white" and "colored." When our kids brought forms home from school, I started putting a "C" after the second question, leaving it to the authorities to figure out whether that meant "Colored" or "Caucasian."

Racing Clearance

About this time, my boss and I and another colleague applied for a special security clearance that we needed. There are certain clearances that can't be named in public -- it was one of those. I had held an ordinary Top Secret clearance for a number of years and had held the un-nameable clearance a short time before, so I did not anticipate any problems.

When I filled out the security form, I noticed that question #5 was "Race." In the past I had not paid attention to this question; I had always thoughtlessly written "Caucasian." Having been sensitized by my new environment, I re-examined the question.

All of my known forebears came from Europe, mostly from Southern Germany with a few from England, Ireland, and Scotland. A glance in the mirror, however, indicated that there was Middle Eastern blood in my veins. I have a semitic nose and skin that tans so easily that I am often darker than many people who pass for black. Did I inherit this from a Hebrew, an Arab, a Gypsy or perhaps one of the Turks who periodically pillaged Central Europe? Maybe it was from a Blackfoot Indian that an imaginative aunt thinks was in our family tree. I will probably never know.

As an arrogant young computer scientist, I believed that if there is any decision that you can't figure out how to program, the question is wrong. I couldn't figure out how to program racial classification, so I concluded that there isn't such a thing. I subsequently reviewed some scientific literature that confirmed this belief. "Race" is, at best, a fuzzy concept about typical physical properties of certain populations. At worst, of course, it is used to justify more contemptible behavior than any concept other than religion.

In answer to the race question on the security form, I decided to put "mongrel." This seemed like an appropriate answer to a meaningless question.

Shortly after I handed in the form, I received a call from a secretary in the security office of the Defense Communications Agency. She said that she had noticed a typographical error in the fifth question where it said "mongrel." She asked if I didn't mean "Mongol." "No thanks," I said, "I really meant `mongrel.'" She ended the conversation rather quickly.

A few hours later I received a call from the chief security officer of D.C.A., who I happened to know. "Hey, Les," he said in a friendly way, "I'd like to talk to you the next time you're over here." I agreed to meet him the following week.

When I got there, he tried to talk me out of answering the race question "incorrectly." I asked him what he thought was the right answer. "You know, Caucasian," he replied. "Oh, you mean someone from the Caucusus Mountains of the U.S.S.R.?" I asked pointedly. "No, you know, `white.'" "Actually, I don't know," I said.

We got into a lengthy discussion in which he informed me that as far as the Defense Department was concerned there were five races: Caucasian, Negro, Oriental, American Indian, and something else that I don't remember. I asked him how he would classify someone who was, by his definition, 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Negro. He said he wasn't sure. I asked how he classified Egyptians and Ethiopians. He wasn't sure.

I said that I wasn't sure either and that "mongrel" seemed like the best answer for me. He finally agreed to forward my form to the security authorities but warned that I was asking for trouble.

A Question of Stability

I knew what to expect from a security background investigation: neighbors and former acquaintances let you know it is going on by asking "What are they trying to get you for?" and kidding you about what they told the investigators. Within a week after my application for the new clearance was submitted, it became apparent that the investigation was already underway and that the agents were hammering everyone they talked to about my "mental stability."

The personnel manager where I worked was interviewed quite early and came to me saying "My God! They think you're crazy! What did you do, rape a polo pony?" He also remarked that they had asked him if he knew me socially and that he had answered "Yes, we just celebrated Guy Fawkes Day together." When the investigator wanted to know "What is Guy Fawkes Day?" he started to explain the gunpowder plot but thought better of it. He settled for the explanation that "It's a British holiday."

An artist friend named Linda, who lived two houses away from us, said that she had no trouble answering the investigator's questions about my stability. She said that she recalled our party the week before when we had formed two teams to "Walk the plank." In this game, participants take turns walking the length of a 2 x 4 set on edge and drinking a small amount of beer. Anyone who steps off is eliminated and the team with the most total crossings after some number of rounds wins. Linda said that she remembered I was one of the most stable participants.

I was glad that she had not remembered my instability at an earlier party of hers when I had fallen off a skateboard, broken my watch and bruised my ribs. The embarrassing cause of the accident was that I had run over the bottom of my own toga!

The investigation continued full tilt everywhere I had lived. After about three months it stopped and a month later I was suddenly informed that the clearance had been granted. The other two people whose investigations were begun at the same time did not receive their clearances until several months later.

In comparing notes, it appeared that the investigators did the background checks on my colleagues in a much more leisurely manner. We concluded that my application had received priority treatment. The investigators had done their best to pin something on me and, having failed, gave me the clearance.

The lesson was clear: if you want a clearance in a hurry, put something on your history form that will make the investigators suspicious but that is not damning. They get so many dull backgrounds to check that they relish the possibility of actually nailing someone. By being a bit provocative, you draw priority attention and quicker service.

After I received the clearance, I expected no further effects from my provocative answer. As it turned out, there was an unexpected repercussion a year later and an unexpected victory the year after that. But that is another story.

Les Earnest

The Missed Punch

An earlier account described how I came to list my race as "mongrel" on a security clearance application and how the clearance was granted in an unusually short time. I will now describe a subsequent repercussion that was a byproduct of a new computer application.

Mongrel in a Star-chamber

In early 1965, about a year after I had been granted a supplementary security clearance, I received a certified letter directing me to report to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Suitland, Maryland very early in the morning on a certain day four weeks later. To one whose brain seldom functions before 10am, this was a singularly unappealing trip request.

My wife somehow got me up early on the appointed day and I drove off in my TR-3 with the top down, as usual, even though it was a cold winter morning. I hoped that the air would stimulate my transition to an awakened state.

When I arrived and identified myself, I was immediately ushered into a long narrow room with venetian blinds on one side turned to block the meager morning light. I was seated on one side of a table on which there were two goose-neck lamps directed into my eyes. There was no other light in the room, so I could barely see the three inquisitors who took positions on the opposite side of the table.

Someone punched on a tape recorder and the trio began taking turns at poking into my past. They appeared to be trying to convince me that I was in deep trouble. While the pace and tone of their questions were clearly aimed at intimidation, they showed surprisingly little interest in my answers. I managed to stay relaxed, partly because I was not yet fully awake.

They asked whether I had any association with a certain professor at San Diego State College, which I had attended for one year. I recognized his name as being one who was harassed as an alleged Communist sympathizer by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era.

Responding to the interrogator's question, I answered that I did not know him but that I might have met him socially since he and my mother were on the faculty concurrently. They wanted to know with certainty whether I had taken any classes from him. I said that I had not.

They next wanted to know how well I knew Linus Pauling, who they knew was a professor at Caltech when I was a student there. I acknowledged that he was my freshman chemistry professor and that I had visited his home once. (I did not mention that Pauling's lectures had so inspired me that I decided to become a chemist. It was not until I took a sophomore course in physical chemistry that I realized that chemistry wasn't as much fun as I had thought. After that, I switched majors in rapid succession to Geology, Civil Engineering, then Electrical Engineering. I ended up working in a still different field.)

I recalled that Pauling had been regularly harassed by certain government agencies during the McCarthy Era because of his leftist "peacenik" views. He was barred from overseas travel on occasion and the harassment continued even after he won his first Nobel Prize but seemed to diminish after the second one, the peace prize.

The inquisitors next wanted to know how often I got together with one of my uncles. I acknowledged that we met occasionally, the last time being a few months earlier when our families dined together. It sounded as though they thought they had something on him. I knew him to be a very able person with a distinguished career in public service. He had been City Manager of Ft. Lauderdale and several other cities and had held a number of diplomatic posts with the State Department. It occurred to me that they might be planning to nail him for associating with a known mongrel.

The questions continued in this vein for hours without a break. I kept waiting for them to bring up a Caltech acquaintance named Bernon Mitchell, who had lived in the same student house as me. Mitchell had later taken a position at the National Security Agency, working in cryptography, then defected to the Soviet Union with a fellow employee. They were apparently closet gays.

In fact, the inquisitors never mentioned Mitchell. This suggested that they may not have done a very thorough investigation. A more likely explanation was that Mitchell and his boyfriend represented a serious failure of the security clearance establishment -- one that they would rather not talk about.

After about three and a half hours of nonstop questioning I was beginning to wake up. I was also beginning to get pissed off over their seemingly endless fishing expedition. At this point there was a short pause and a rustling of papers. I sensed that they were finally getting around to the main course.

"We note that on your history form you claim to be a mongrel," said the man in the middle. "What makes you think you are a mongrel?" "That seems to be the best available answer to an ill-defined question," I responded. We began an exchange that was very much like my earlier discussion with the security officer in the Defense Communications Agency. As before, I asked how they identified various racial groups and how they classified people who were mixtures of these "races."

The interrogators seemed to be taken aback at my asking them questions. They asked why I was trying to make trouble. I asked them why they would not answer my questions. When no answers were forthcoming, I finally pointed out that "It is clear that you do not know how to determine the race of any given person, so it is unreasonable for you to expect me to. I would now like to know what you want from me."

The interrogators began whispering among themselves. They had apparently planned to force me to admit my true race and were not prepared for an alternative outcome. Finally, the man in the center spoke up saying, "Are you willing to sign a sworn statement about your race?" "Certainly," I said. They then turned up the lights and called for a secretary.

She appeared with notebook in hand and I dictated a statement: "I declare that to the best of my knowledge I am a mongrel." "Don't you think you should say more than that," said the chief interrogator. "I think that covers it," I replied. The secretary shrugged and went off to type the statement.

Punch Line

With the main business out of the way, things lightened up -- literally. They opened the venetian blinds to let in some sunlight and offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted. We had some friendly conversation, then I signed the typed statement, which was duly notarized.

My former tormentors now seemed slightly apologetic about the whole affair. I asked them what had prompted this investigation. After some glances back and forth, one of them admitted that "We were putting our clearance data base on punched cards and found that there was no punch for `mongrel'."

I thought about this for a moment, then asked "Why didn't you add a new punch?" "We don't have any programmers here" was the answer. "We got the program from another agency."

I said, "Surely I am not the only person to give a non-standard answer. With all the civil rights activists now in government service, some of them must have at least refused to answer the race question." The atmosphere became noticeably chillier as one of them answered, with clinched teeth, "You're the only one. The rest of those people seem to know their race."

It was clear that they believed I had caused this problem, but it appeared to me that the entire thrash was triggered by the combination of a stupid question and the common programmer's blunder of creating a categorization that does not include "Other" as an option.

The security people apparently found it impractical to obtain the hour or two of a programmer's time that would have been needed to fix the code to deal with my case, so they chose instead to work with their standard tools. This led to an expenditure of hundreds of man-hours of effort in gathering information to try to intimidate me into changing my answer.

I was surprised to learn that nearly everyone believed in the mythical concept of racial classification. It appeared that even people who were victims of discrimination acknowledged their classification as part of their identity.

I never did find out how the security investigators coped with the fact that I remained a mongrel, but in 1966 I discovered that something very good had happened: the "race" question had disappeared from the security clearance form. I liked to think that I helped that change along.

Unfortunately, almost the same question reappeared on that form and most other personnel forms a few years later, under the guise of "ethnic" classification. I believe that that question is just as meaningless as the race question and I have consistently answered it the same way during the intervening 20 years.

I now invite others to join me in this self-declassification, with the hope and expectation that one day the bureaucrats and politicians will be forced to quit playing with this issue and will come to realize that the United States of America is a nation of egalitarian mongrels. I believe that we will all be better off.

In any case, whenever you design a database, please don't forget the "other" category.

Les Earnest