Microsoft employees in Reno, Nevada breathed a sigh of relief last week as the third test for anthrax, thought to be contained in a suspicious letter mailed to the Reno campus on October 12, came up negative. However, the anthrax scare did more than freak out employees--it solidified what many were already thinking: Is Microsoft next? Just as the World Trade Center towers are the symbol of American and global finance, Microsoft, the $25 billion software giant, is the symbol of the 21st-century American corporation. And after September 11, these types of symbols are targets.

But more than just being a symbol, Microsoft is seen as a tactical target. From the country's telecommunications, banking, and defense industries to our water and electrical systems, much of this country's infrastructure is now supported and maintained by computers. Microsoft, and its software products like Windows, help operate and maintain many of the nation's critical computer systems. "Information systems have become the backbone of the American economy," former Air Force officer and current terrorism and defense expert Ernest Lorelli told The Stranger, "and Microsoft is at the hub." Whether it helps run aircraft carriers for the U.S. military, or provides information systems for AT&T or a Saudi oil company, Microsoft has a hand in it all, and thus, is a target.

At the Thursday, October 25 Redmond Chamber of Commerce meeting, U.S. Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) warned that Redmond, with its 13,941 Microsoft tenants, needs to look closely at its security responses. In response to recent events and legitimate concerns, Microsoft itself is boosting security, trying to soothe employee fears, and changing the loose corporate culture that helped define the company.

Unlike many tightly secured corporate headquarters--Boeing, for example, with perimeter chainlink fences and armed guards--Microsoft has tried hard to be laid back. Microsoft's Redmond campus, spread among the tall Douglas firs throughout the growing city, consumes 355 acres of land and occupies 45 buildings. The company is integrated into the city, not separated from it, and therefore it is almost impossible to completely secure. You can't put a chainlink fence around an entire city.

Microsoft has also always encouraged employees to come and go as they please, dress however they want, park their cars anywhere, and work odd, often long hours. True, Microsoft has always had private security patrolling the campus, and electronic ID cards are required to enter the buildings, but according to many Microsoft employees, security has always seemed minimal and unobtrusive. "I had to actually request more security for my building when I started working late nights," said one former Microsoft contractor, who wishes to remain anonymous. This easygoing Microsoft tradition of light security is changing.

Microsoft is making quick and visible security changes, in large part to quell employee concerns. According to sources, many Microsoft employees have e-mailed company executives in the last few weeks, worried about lapses in security. (For fear of making Microsoft employees more vulnerable, The Stranger will not print descriptions of the security lapses we've learned about.) Some of the concern is from employees who share a campus building where many of the head executives' offices--the offices of Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer, for example--are grouped together. To some, having the top dogs all in one place creates an obvious target. In response to that concern, the building in question has doubled security patrols outside and security staff inside. Employees say the new security staff is seen constantly checking doors and rooms. Also, sources say, the future of a new building, which was just completed to house executives, is now in limbo. Microsoft spokesperson Stacey Drake confirmed stories about the added security staff, but would not comment on any other security details.

Unfortunately, and understandably, some employees are downright paranoid. According to the Redmond Police Department, since October 12, Microsoft employees have called 911 numerous times with anthrax scares. For example, on Friday, October 12, the Redmond Fire Department responded to a call from a Microsoft employee who reported a suspicious white powder on her car. The fire truck rushed to the campus, but determined that the substance was probably tree sap. A few days later, on Monday, October 15, an employee from a Microsoft building located off NE 36th Street reported a powdery white substance flying out of her opened can of Starbucks breath mints. Redmond police graciously took the report, but did not send an officer out. Later that day, a more serious call came. According to Redmond Police Department spokesperson Betsey Cable, Microsoft evacuated an office where a suspicious letter was received from Lebanon. Microsoft had the letter independently tested for anthrax, but at press time there was no word on the result. Other scares, which Cable has heard about but can't confirm, have been handled by Microsoft's internal security.

Currently, Microsoft is making substantial security changes, some of them visible. For example, employees are now required to wear security badges on their clothing at all times, and must enter buildings one at a time, instead of in groups. "It's not like terrorists can't forge ID cards," one anonymous employee says sarcastically. All mail will now be checked and opened before employees get it. And beginning late last week, all employees and visitors are asked to obtain a parking permit and register their vehicle with security--or else get towed. Campus parking patrols are also increasing, and becoming more aggressive. For example, a Stranger photographer had his film confiscated trying to snap photos for this very story.

According to syndicated freelancer Cynthia Flash in The Seattle Times, Microsoft has canceled its annual Halloween party. Some speculate that the company may cancel their Christmas party as well, as it did two years ago during Y2K. "I just think that's giving in to the terrorists," says an unhappy Microsoft programmer, who also wishes to remain anonymous.

As can be expected, Microsoft is reportedly reviewing its own computer systems, and is in private talks with consultants and other corporations, sharing and trading security tips. In fact, in the Bay Area, where disasters like earthquakes are a real possibility, Microsoft, SGI, and other businesses formed a partnership called the Bayshore Response Assistance Group for the purpose of sharing emergency information. A similar partnership may be coming to Redmond and Seattle. Microsoft is also talking to Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives about the city's lack of emergency response capabilities for threats like anthrax.

pat@thestranger.com

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