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Secure premises

How safe is ridiculously safe?

A friend who works at a regional government service center crunches numbers for a federal agency. For years it was a dull but friendly place to work. Then a bomb went off in Oklahoma City. That incident was very bad all by itself. But the explosion sent repercussions to another federal office a thousand miles away–the one where my friend works.

A security consulting team was called in, and one specialist after another determined that the building was not set far enough away from the street to withstand a car bomb. Half the people used no password, no one used encryption, and the firewall around the agency intranet was about as impermeable as a slice of Swiss cheese.

This sleepy agency, which was too broke to upgrade its four-year-old fleet of Pentium PCs, suddenly had money to burn, provided the expenditure was security-related.

A security desk was installed, with two full-time uniformed guards, a walk-through metal detector, and a conveyor-belt bag X-ray machine. Workers who used to park 50 feet from the door now park a minimum of 120 yards from the building, which they now walk around, even in below-zero wind chills, all in the name of safety.

And then there is the logjam at the checkout desk. At 8 a.m., people line up 30 deep to be let in. The two guards–a man of about 240 pounds who looks like he played middle linebacker, and a petite woman with a lovely smile and a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 on the shelf next to her lunch bag–sit smugly behind a shield of bulletproof glass that extends a full ten inches above the desk. To shoot them, you would have to be five feet tall on your tippytoes to fire over that glass. And you’d have to hope she grabs her sandwich instead of the gun.

Once you are inside the building, there is relatively free access, except for the fourth floor, which holds the servers and telecommunications hardware. You cannot get off the elevator on this floor unless you show a smartcard to a laser reader mounted on the door.

Once at your desk, you must enter your password, and if you leave your desk for more than 10 minutes, you must enter it again when you return.

The password can’t be your birthday or pet’s name. And you can’t cut and paste it. It must be a case-sensitive combination of 12 characters that are reassigned on a monthly basis by the network administrator, who spends the first hour and a half of every day explaining that workers cannot log on because the software mistook a lower-case L for the numeral 1.

The system has been in place for nearly two years now, and the results are impressive. Office productivity has fallen about 20 percent. Employee retention is a dreadful 64 percent annually–53 percent on the fourth floor.

People are sick a lot, they grumble a lot, and they feel they are just not working in a very friendly place any more. A few people, the kind that you might worry about in a crisis, are just plain scared. All that security has convinced them that swarthy terrorists have the data-processing facility squarely in their crosshairs. “If you want to bring the government to its knees,” my friend said wistfully, “you don’t have to blow a building up. Just make it really, really safe.”

Mike Finley is co-author of “The New Why Teams Don’t Work.”

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