YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

War by Computer Virus : TRAPDOOR by Bernard J. O'Keefe (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 324 pp.)

December 11, 1988|Jack Miles

You've heard the one about the guy who wired together all the computers in the country. His first question to this monster computer: "Is there a god?" Its answer: "There is now."

A god-computer of that sort may be the most interesting character in Bernard J. O'Keefe's "Trapdoor," a first novel whose author calls it, in an epilogue, a "parable to point out the complexity of modern technology and to demonstrate how one error, one misjudgment, or one act of sabotage could lead to actions that would annihilate civilization."

The trapdoor of the title is not stage business but mathematics. If I want to bar your path to my computer, I need only make access depend on your coming up with an incalculably large number. Of course, no number is literally incalculable, but an intruder would need more than a quadrillion years on the fastest computer in existence, O'Keefe says, to analyze the product of two 60-digit prime numbers (numbers not divisible by any number but themselves and the number 1). Blocked by such Brobdingnagian arithmetic, the intruder will drop through a figurative trapdoor, and your computer will be secure.

But wait a minute. Who made the computer? What if she switches one of the 60-digit prime numbers on you? Now you can't get in either!

That is what happens in this novel. A Lebanese computer whiz from Stanford who happens also to be a PLO sympathizer has had a role in the construction of "Permissive Action Links," release control devices on U.S. nuclear weapons that entail the use of two large primes. One prime remains in the custody of the President. The other is in the bombs themselves. Unless both are known, the bombs cannot be exploded. The United States, O'Keefe explains, needs such devices more than the Soviet Union does because so many of our weapons are on foreign soil. We have greater reason to fear the theft of a warhead than the Kremlin does, and we want to be able to render a stolen warhead useless.

What the beautiful saboteuse does is turn this very safeguard against us. By satellite transmission, the Pentagon changes the bomb-release number-pairs every three months. At one of these change points, the virus that June Malik has implanted in the Pentagon computer rejects the Pentagon's number and transmits her own number instead. Only she knows this number, and she has delayed the action of her virus long enough for her to flee to Lebanon. The result: America no longer knows the code necessary to launch its own weapons. The nation is defenseless.

Here is where the computer god becomes a major actor. (Deus ex machina was never like this!) A quadrillion years on the fastest computer in existence is only a trillion years on one thousand of the fastest computers in existence, right? A trillion years is only a billion years on another thousand of the fastest computers in existence, and so forth. How many computers can be mobilized for the "parallel processing" that alone can prevent America from being rendered, at a stroke, helpless before its great enemy?

All the great university computers are mobilized, all the insurance computers, all the Wall Street computers. "Not a chance," I hear a hacker cry: "The number is still too big." Perhaps, but by a twist in the plot, the saboteuse, who has had a change of heart, manages to reveal--from the camp in Southern Lebanon where she is being held hostage--two of the three-digit primes she used to build up her giant prime. Later, on closed-circuit television from the camp, she will mime three zeros: one with her mouth, two with her thumbs and index fingers. The American code-crackers catch on: All three-digit primes have zero as the middle digit; she has just told them that she used only three-digit primes. With this clue, the hackers begin to close in.

Her former co-conspirators, now her captors, are so confident that they have disarmed the entire American nuclear arsenal that they have brought a stolen American bomb to their camp in Lebanon. The President can see it on the television screen. They dare him to set the bomb off. If it goes off, they die. If it fails to go off, the Soviet Union will demand the immediate surrender of American sovereignty. Everything depends on whether the hackers of the country, working as one giant hacking team with all the hardware in the nation at their disposal, can get the number in time.

Can it all happen as O'Keefe has written it? Not quite, as he points out in his epilogue. "Permissive Action Links" involving virtually incalculable numbers are not in place on all American warheads. Those without this safeguard are more than enough to provide a deterrent even if the others are disabled.

Los Angeles Times Articles