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Our Cleverness Bites Back: G-IV, Y2K, Hackers

I had mentioned on National Public Radio the G-IV problem, the failure of the Galaxy IV satellite, leaving millions of Americans with pagers that didn't page. And the Y2K problem - all the computers that are supposed to go haywire (or maybe haywireless) in the year 2000. All of which, I said, baffled me. And when I ran into Joel Klein, the trust-busting scourge of Microsoft, on the tennis court, he joshingly said, "I see you're lost in cyberspace."

Joel, with nothing to worry about except sticking it to Bill Gates, may think it funny about cyberspace, but some of us, with minimal understanding of what's going on out there, are worried about being dependent on technologies that threaten to come back and bite us.

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You take the Pentagon computers that are supposed to run the next war for us, and then you read that two teenage high school students in northern California and another in Israel have hacked their way into the Air Force National Computer Center and sent red warning flags popping up on the screen. Is the nation's security to be at the mercy of adolescent hackers?

Or those communications satellites that carry everything from our phone calls to our television programs. I have yet to see an explanation of what happened to make G-IV suddenly go into a tailspin. Do we know that these satellites are not at the mercy of mischievous or sinister hackers?

Or the Y2K problem, when all the computers will think that the year 2000 is the year 1900 and go berserk, creating chaos in everything from air conditioning to air traffic control.

That's not the half of it. Physics professor Mark Brautschi of John Hopkins University sent me a long paper about "the embedded systems problem," the date-sensitive silicon chips whose malfunctioning will disrupt everything from heart pacemakers to plumbing, lighting, and elevators that will go to the ground floor and stay there.

I was thinking, what a way for this great civilization to go, brought down by its own cleverness. At least, I thought, a nonpartisan problem. But I spoke too soon. Here is a release from the conservative William J. Casey Institute suggesting that the Clinton administration is not responding to the crisis maybe because of its strategy of running on peace and prosperity in the midterm elections.

Imagine! A coverup of Doomsday! But if Doomsday really comes in 2000, will it matter much who got elected in 1998?

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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