Tales from The Trenches Archive

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What’s your security clearance?

In the mid-90s I was working my first real computer job, tech support for a company that made software for producing GUIs, primarily for UNIX and VMS (look it up, kids) systems.  Our largest customers were various branches of the US Government, ranging from the utterly innocuous (census, bureau of land management, etc) to the CIA, NSA and other less-well known branches.  (Fun facts: When asked whom they work for, CIA employees just say “The Federal Government”, whereas NSA employees say “the Department of Defense”, and When you call someone at the NSA, they answer the phone by just saying the last 4 digits of their phone number you just called).

Anyway, something we were constantly running into was the need to see the code that people were having trouble with, but often being told that they were unable to share the code with us unless we had security clearance (We did not.)  Normally this just meant a quick and easy way to close a ticket—Can’t show us the code? Well, then, we really can’t help you, sir.  Case closed.

However, one day my colleague (I’ll just call him Mike) had a call from someone at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which was one of other big customers.  He was having a problem with the code being output by the GUI-builder, and was under some huge deadline.  He was absolutely desperate, and so the typical exchange of Security Clearance? No? Can’t help you! was broken by the caller saying “ok, look, fine, I’m going to send you the code, but you CANNOT tell anyone, and you need to delete it immediately after finishing with it.  Or ELSE.”

Fair enough. Mike gets the guy to send the code in, he opens it and it’s some sort of GUI to be used for tracking submarines/ships/missiles/torpedoes, etc.  Mike finds the problem with the code, fixes it, and sends it back to the dude at the NUWC. However, Mike then decides that this is too interesting to just delete, and instead goes about writing a back-end to turn it into a war-game, which the rest of us in Tech Support (not-knowing it’s origin) start playing obsessively on the server in-between calls for a couple of weeks, before finally one of the bosses thinks to inquire as to where Mike got the game.  He tells them he wrote it, and then tells them the story of where he got the front-end.  Everyone in the room falls silent as the boss’s face goes first pale, pale white, and then beet red.  Everyone in Tech Support except for Mike got sent home for the afternoon, and when we came back the next day, the game was gone from the server, and Mike was gone from his cube.