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July 7 - 13, 1999

Machine Age

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Blame Game
Role-Playing Microsofties Trigger Security Alerts

Three weekends ago, New York unwittingly played host to Microsoft employees' annual exercise in paranoia— a two-day competition known as "the Game," during which teams of Microsofties in black vans equipped with cell phones, global positioning system devices, laptops, and a wireless Internet connection engage in a battle of wits.

This year's Game, designed to simulate a paramilitary antiterrorist training session, sent 11 teams rampaging through New York and parts of New Jersey for approximately 27 hours in search of a fictional terrorist named Alice Price. But in its quest for verisimilitude, Microsoft caused several high-security panics, most notably at the World Trade Center Marriott, where the company rented a suite that functioned as "Terrorist Headquarters." While cleaning the room after the event, Marriott staff noticed vials lying in the trash that were labeled "radioactive waste." Fearing contamination, they notified the police and the Port Authority, who evacuated the entire 14th floor while working to identify the liquid. It turned out to be Palmolive dishwashing soap.

Allen Morrison, spokesperson for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, said that "although it created a serious disruption, there was no intent to break laws, so we did not feel an arrest was necessary. However, it was a terrible idea to leave those vials in the trash." After assessing the total damage caused by the incident, Alan Reiss, director of the World Trade Center, viewed the occurrence less charitably. In a letter mailed to Bill Gates last week, Reiss complained of the "serious incident . . . in which no less than four police and public safety agencies were involved." Reiss chastised Gates's employees as "insensitive" for "planting vials labeled as radioactive material at a facility that was the victim of one of the most notorious terrorism incidents in American history."

The two hotel employees who discovered the vials were treated for trauma because they thought they had been exposed to radioactive material. Besides the Port Authority, the New York Police Department, the New York City Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit, and the New York City Office of Emergency Management were all on hand to help evacuate the 14th floor. In closing, Reiss exhorted Gates to "temper his employees' fantasy games with a reality check." Microsoft had no comment, other than to reiterate that the Game is not organized by the company.

The Game, which was started by Microsoft Windows program manager Joe Belfiore while he was still in high school, is in its ninth year. Winners traditionally get bragging rights, but this year a small trophy was added to the spoils. According to J. Allard, a Microsoft general manager and the competition coordinator, the intent was to make this event one of the most memorable. "I guess we succeeded," he told the Seattle Times. Using excerpts of the Unabomber manifesto and videos of terrorist footage as clues, Allard and his crew of high-tech conspirators coordinated the event from "Mission Control," a luxury suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. The competing teams, which paid their own expenses, caused two other minor disturbances during the Game— a team was questioned by police in a New Jersey park for suspicious behavior while planting clues, and another inadvertently set off the alarm system in a Columbia University building.

New York police made no arrests but seemed perplexed by Microsoft's elaborate game. As one security officer put it, "Microsoft must be working these guys way too hard if this is the way they blow off steam."

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previous columns:
June 23 - 29, 1999
June 16 - 22, 1999
June 16 - 22, 1999
June 16 - 22, 1999

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