The Unwise Update

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This story passed on to me first-hand from the engineer involved. It's a true story about how insufficient knowledge among operating personnel about the operational consequences of new technology may have accidental effects.

The Unexpectedly Unwise Update

The setting is a military exercise range in the 1970's. The individual in question was a young engineer responsible for some new equipment tested in field operations for the first time during an air operations exercise.

The purpose of the equipment was to enable tactical operations data to be directly accessible at the remote operations headquarters situated in the exercise range. A set of display terminals were connected to a box able to hold a database. From simple switch panels at the displays one could select among several views of data - such as weather information, number of fighters on standby, and more - from the database.

The database was a replica of the database at permanent headquarters. Communication was established between headquarters and the exercise range by microwave links, two masts with directional antennas and relay radio equipment deployed at suitable locations forming a chain of links. The microwave provided a number of ordinary telephone channels. This was in the dawn of data communications, so data transfer took place at maybe 1200 bits per second by modems terminating one of the telephone channels.

When starting operations a replica of the database was transferred to the remote equipment. This took about 15 minutes. From then on, updates only were transferred when applicable.

New equipment tested in the field for the first time; of course there were bugs. The replica sometimes became inconsistent. To repair that, a full download would be initiated. Another 15 minutes and all was well again.

At some point our engineer was approached by an operations officer:

"Please initiate a full restore. We are ordered to shut down the line, and I want to be sure that we have all data."

Our engineer pressed the button and the slow restore commenced. When finished he reported back and asked:

"Why must the line be shut down?"

"Intelligence has observed that one of those Russian trawlers that doesn't seem to fish much and is loaded full of protruding antennas has positioned itself directly in the line of sight extension from our last microwave link."

"Oh, I see."

That, of course, meant that the sporadic updates to the database might be intercepted by unintended recipients.

It was only later that it dawned on him what might have been the true consequences of the actual shut down procedure, namely, that the uninvited audience would have the complete database, and not just some of the updates.

It's discouraged in the military, but sometimes the question "Why" can be more important than usual.

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