The Digital Bomb

A story that may have been true.

In 1999 there was great concern over Y2K. I saw a program on PBS telling about how chinese computer scientists were "helping" the US with their Y2K problem. In reality we were letting them have access to our mainframes.

I thought that I would resort to a fictional story to describe what I felt could be happening. See information at end of story.

The Digital Bomb

By Frank Greenhalgh

My name is Danny Huang, I was born in Beijing China in 1954. My father was a member of the Communist Party and loyal to Chairman Mao. We lived a life style somewhat above the average Chinese person but certainly not that of a wealthy person. I graduated from high school just when the Chairman's rule had ended in 1973. It was very fortunate for me as the new Chairman, opened the universities for the first time since the revolution. Two hundred million students applied for the freshman class of five hundred. I was fortunate enough to be among the first ten selected. The reason was partly due to my excellent grades and partly due to my father's party affiliation. I majored in computer sciences and was asked to continue on for an advanced degree due to my high grades. I eventually obtained a PHd in computer science and remained on the university staff teaching and researching. It was an exciting time. We had to be proficient in English in order to stay abreast with the advances in the field that were made by the west, especially in the United States. I had great respect for the US and the work its computer people were accomplishing. I became skilled in the various mainframe programs and helped to write the software used by our military for nuclear development and missile design. For the next two decades my colleagues and I were treated royally. We were provided with our own housing, a salary far above average and permission to travel to conferences on computers all over the world. The level of computer competency at the university grew to world class levels and it was our efforts that enabled China to enter into the twentieth century.

In 1997 a number of us were asked to attend a conference in Shanghai. It was not publicized and we were all sworn to secrecy regarding its purpose. The person running the conference was Jimmy Woo, a member of the Red Guard Secret Service. Jimmy had graduated in my class. Jimmy told us the following story:

"China as a sovereign nation must be capable of defending itself against any attacks from the west. Due to Chairman Mao's policies, we were very behind technically. In the late 1980s China staged a massive effort to catch up. Due to lax oversights at US military development sites, such as Los Alamo, we were able to obtain just about all the necessary secrets regarding nuclear devices and missile design. The problem was that although we had the required information it would still take many years and many billions of dollars to come even close to the power of the US. All this was tempered by the latest government policies of restructuring the economy to a capitalist model. This restructuring would require every dollar the government had as it would have to provide jobs to people put out of work due to the privatization of previously government controlled industries. Add to this the fact that every year approximately 250 million new people enter the work place forcing the government to provide a growing economy to meet their needs. The government has been fairly successful in growing the economy at a rate of over 20% annually but it must keep running just to stay in place." Jimmy said, "We are not about to make the same mistakes the Soviet Union made. They bankrupted their economy attempting to keep up with the US militarily and had to become beholden on the West for an economic bailout."

"The reason for this conference," Jimmy explained, "was to discuss a plan that could provide a very inexpensive means to neutralize the west due to a one time window that would permit Chinese scientists to penetrate the major strength of the west, their computer networks. The plan was to send our brightest programmers to the west to work on the Y2K problem" Jimmy continued, "Although security is lax in US military facilities it is non existent in US industry. Presently the US is hiring computer programmers from India, Africa and Manila to assist in correcting their Y2K bug. Our plan is to form companies that offer Chinese, and other programmers, to companies in the west. We will have total access to the code of some of the largest companies and will be able to work on their systems free of scrutiny."

Our first step was to design a "Digital Bomb", one that can be inserted into the code of the mainframes we work on. It should be one that will act like a virus not only on the mainframe it is inserted in, but should be capable of spreading through all levels of the enterprise system. Once installed it would remain dormant and unnoticed until such time it would be triggered. When triggered it should be capable of wiping out all US industry communications. My job would be to first develop the bomb and then take a staff of my people to the US to install it into as many mainframes as possible. Jimmy assured us that companies were being set up in the US and Europe, to provide Y2K services, so that we would have no problem accessing the larger mainframes of key companies.

I asked: "How would this be possible? Why would anyone expect the US to believe that the cream of China's computer elite would want to work on such mundane code work when there are so many challenges in China for us." Jimmy said, "The Americans are very gullible, they have such a low opinion of China that they believe that having the opportunity to live in the US would be enough of a carrot." Jimmy was right. Now that I have spent the last two years installing my "Digital Bomb", I am preparing to return to my mother country and get back to more interesting work. I hope I never have to trigger this bomb, as it will mean that China will also be set back as we are dependent on many US companies for our economic growth. Still now my country can feel secure that we also have the "Bomb" and can deal with more confidence with the west.

Fact or fiction?
The above story is a figment of my imagination. However it was conjured from a number of inputs that convinced me that it might be true. One thing is true. The US is allowing scores of foreign nationals to have access to our nations computer systems, as the US attempts to prepare for Y2K. Secondly it is not necessary to employ PHds to scan millions of lines of code and make the two to four digit changes required. Some recent stories surfaced in the news that triggered my imagination.

On May 11, 1999, the New York Times discussed how important it was to China to get its Y2K act together.

"China is very, very behind in Y2K contingency planning," said Joseph Sweeney, director of research at the Hong Kong office of Gartner Group, a research firm that specializes in the Year 2000 problem. "There's no way many of their organizations will come up to speed in time."

Does this sound like a country that will allow its brightest to assist the US with their problems?

A July 29th article in USA Today stated:

WASHINGTON (AP) - Two of the government's top computer security experts are warning that some programmers hired to fix Year 2000 problems may be quietly installing malicious software code to sabotage companies or give themselves access to sensitive information after the new year.

The ominous warnings were part of testimony prepared for a hearing Thursday about the so-called Y2K glitch and cyberterrorism before the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

On July 27th ,the following feature appeared on the "News Hour" on PBS.

It was called, Five Months and Counting, by Paul Solman of WGBH, Boston. Included in the article is a story about a company that specializes in Y2K fixes using Chinese programmers:

Commentator:
Let me show you some of the programming staff that works here at Primeon. Robert Yang has a Ph.D. from Chinghua University and was a professor at Chinghua for ten years. Jason [Zhicheng] Shi is the manager of year 2000 development. Jason has two Ph.D.'s. Lu Sun is a project manager, has a Masters in Computer Science from Chinghua University, and ended up number two in his class. His wife ended up number one.

PAUL SOLMAN: Primeon itself was founded by Fred Wang, a member of China's crème de la crème Class of '77, the first class to enter the reopened colleges after Mao closed them during the cultural revolution and sent students out into the fields. Wang scored higher than-- get this-- some 200 million potential college applicants. Just to get his spot at one of China's top engineering schools, he was one in 10,000. He has recruited his fellow best and brightest.
PAUL SOLMAN: This really the very smartest of the computer people in China that have you here?
FRED WANG: Yes, I'm sure. Yeah, we have about ten Ph.D.'s and professors. Yeah, it's a very, very-- I mean, they are like a superstar.
PAUL SOLMAN: Superstars like Fred Wang and his top classmates.
JAMES DONOHUE, Vice President, Human Resources, Primeon: Getting people of Fred's quality to do this kind of work in the US is just about impossible. Y2K is not a glamorous business. The Internet's the glamorous business these days. And to go in and basically spend your time cleaning up "other people's messes" when you could be working on Internet and E-commerce type of situations may put you in a big competitive disadvantage. You can't hire people of that quality to do Y2K.
PAUL SOLMAN: Americans won't do it?
JAMES DONOHUE: That's right.
PAUL SOLMAN: But the Chinese will
JAMES DONOHUE: That's right.
PAUL SOLMAN: To most economists, immigrants are a huge plus for the US economy.

The entire segment of this program can be found at:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/cyberspace/july-dec99/y2k_7-27.html

I find it fascinating that this would even be broadcast. It seems unbelievable to me.

Hello. Am I paranoid or what?
China has its own Y2K problems. Why would their leadership allow their best and brightest leave the country to help the West? Remember that these are the same leaders who are so paranoid, that they are going all out to stop the Falun Gong people from meditating, considering them a threat to their hold on the government.

The US should have some form of oversight that could inspect the code changes and additions on sample mainframes that are worked upon by not only Chinese but all foreign nationals. It would be like chicken soup. It wouldn't hurt.

Frank Greenhalgh
August 15, 1999