An Ides of April Book


The Ides of March Conspiracy, by Clyde Matthews, New York: Arbor House, 1979, 307 pp., $9.95.

Likened by some to George Orwell's 1984, this is a story of computer technology and its potential misuse by Big Government. Matthews went to executives of Computer Techniques Corporation for some expert advice in writing this book, and his terminology shows it.

Three computer experts become concerned when nobody listens to their expressed concerns about computer linking as a threat to privacy and civil liberties and about the possibilities of computer terrorism against governments. Deciding to demonstrate the vulnerability of systems thought to be secure, they zero in on the IRS by breaking their key codes (with the help of a look at some printouts left lying around in an IRS computer center). They gain access to the system through a satellite used for the links between Martinsburg and the regional IRS offices and wreak havoc a month before tax returns are due by causing audit notices to be sent out to pols and executives, lists of tax-delinquent members of Congress to be sent to the news media, and copies of dossiers (which they discovered to be kept illegally in the system) sent to the subjects thereof.

The altruistic objective, of course, is to cause gigantic embarrassment for the government, without any lasting damage, and also to expose the threat of tyranny should a Senate bill regulating and monitoring all computers be passed. What happens after the moving press conference, the arrest and trial of the conspirators, the attempts on their lives, makes good novel suspense and action but is not very credible. Bugs in the conspirators' Washington apartment as they prepare for trial should have been anticipated if they were really smart. And the eventual suicide of the "heavy," a US senator bent on taking over the country with his computer control bill, leading to the ultimate vindication of the conspirators, lacks some imagination. The plot could have been a lot more creative in this area.

The matter of the satellite access is glossed over rather lightly. Considering that such takes a large parabolic antenna and a lot of expensive microwave equipment that is difficult to obtain if not impossible to hide, some attention should have been given to how this was done rather than leave the inference that an existing facility was surreptitiously used. Finally, the intruder was clever enough to make his initial approaches "invisible" by erasing techniques akin to computer amnesia but seemed unable to cover up the true source of the inserted programs long enough to avoid being arrested almost immediately.

But all in all, the novel makes good reading to those not too familiar with computer technology and radio communications. To curl up with it on a cold night would be a satisfying libertarian activity.

R.W. Johnson is a professional electrical engineer with a consulting practice in California