Jon Gordon's Big Black Box

           ROUNDING THE CORNER of the squat suburban building that houses The Vault, you can't miss the security cameras. Every visitor is caught in the crosshairs of a pair of giant snoopers mounted on each corner of the building; a sticker on the glass door tells you as much. What you don't see--or more importantly, what would-be Vault-heist bad guys don't see--are the four hidden video cameras, and the still camera that takes a full frontal shot of you by the time your fingers tickle the keypad of the "Identikey TM" personal access system. Behind the bullet-proof window, a Vault attendant confirms your access privilege and lets you through a steel reinforced door into a locked man-trap. Here, you are eyed in a full-length mirror to make sure you're not hiding a sawed-off behind your back. Once he's sure you're unarmed, the attendant buzzes you through the second door of the man-trap, and ushers you past the final barrier, a locked Plexiglas door, and finally into The Vault itself.

           Beyond the cameras, the bullet-proof glass, the checked and double-checked digital access system, the man-trap, and the security gate, you run into Jon Gordon, the Vault's owner, and its formidable last defense. Gordon is--how to put this delicately--an exceedingly wide man. In a vault heist, the robbers could probably outrun Gordon without much effort, but I, for one, wouldn't relish a tangle with the man in a cramped room or aisle on his own turf. If there were a burglary (and, for the record, there's never been an attempt), it would be in the Grisham, not the Reservoir Dogs vein. The contents of The Vault have minimal street value: cash, jewels, and Picasso's are not the norm; computer tapes and diskettes are. It used to be that a business's most valuable assets were real estate parcels or merchandise or raw materials stockpiled in some guarded warehouse. But more and more, what's generically called "information" ranks highest on the prized possession scale--worthy of ultra high-security storage.

           That's where The Vault, and a handful of outfits like it, come into the picture. They offer bank-vault style security to banks, insurance agencies, retailers, and other outfits that want to keep customer data, client lists, and the very operating systems that run their computers under lock and key. The guarded shelves are crammed with storage tapes of every conceivable format. Ancient IBM-read tape cartridges the size of long-playing records hang by the dozen in rows. Next to them stand shelves filled with hundreds of DLT cartridges the size of VCR tapes which can hold information off 21 of the old-style tapes. Smaller still, and more capacious, are the DAT tapes, which are no bigger than a cassette tape, but capable of storing four gigabits of information. In analog terms, that's nearly one and one half million single-spaced sheets of typewritten paper. If you filled one DAT tape with copies of the Bible and then printed them out and stacked them one on top of the other, the pile would reach just seven stories shy of the top of the IDS tower. Off the top of his head, Gordon can't even guess how many gigabits he has kicking around The Vault. "I wouldn't even try," he says. "It's an atrocious figure." If he were in the business of storing printed matter, he'd fill a half-dozen warehouses at the edge of town.

           Gordon won't reveal who any of his customers are. "Part of what we're selling is privacy and confidentiality," he says. But he boasts a couple of Fortune 500 companies, a handful of "financial institutions," and dozens of smaller businesses. (I did notice a shelf filled with audio master tapes tagged in heavy black magic marker with the name of a prominent, now-defunct, local punk rock band.) And because The Vault promises privacy and confidentiality, the businesses could be storing just about anything on the premises. Generally speaking, though, the computer tapes hold information interesting only to the company and its competitors: lists of client addresses and phone numbers, perhaps a secret ingredient or two.

           These types of high-tech bunkers wouldn't be so popular if it weren't for the risk of disaster. Some kinds of businesses are required by law to plan for cataclysmic events of god or man, and many others are deciding it's a good idea to have a backup plan in case, say, a matrix of tornadoes sweeps through town, an insurrection bubbles up on their corporate campus, or a terrorist strikes the Heartland. The Vault is an insulated steel bubble, and is essentially disaster proof. "This thing is designed," Gordon explains, "so that if this building were to burn down today, this vault would still be standing. Likewise if you had a tornado hit it." Diebold, who designed and built the vault, is "the premier designer of safes and vaults. Very well known in the banking industry. They're probably considered the Cadillac of the business." If a fire breaks out in the vault itself, the contents are protected by a Halon gas-spewing fire suppression system, "the same thing they've used on nuclear submarines for years for the same purpose. In less than 20 seconds, this entire room would fill up with that crap. And you would have a great desire to get the hell out of here. Because there wouldn't be any oxygen left in here, okay?"

           One of the problems with storing data is that as the years go by, it takes up less and less space. "We probably have 10 times the megabits of information we had in here five years ago, but I'm not taking up appreciably more space." In an industry that charges by the cubic foot, that's a problem. "It's not going to take too much mathematics to figure out that I'm going to have to work a lot harder to bring in more customers to make up for this." But that's only a temporary solution. In the long term, Gordon says the entire notion of storing data in a room will be as obsolete as a clunky old IBM storage tape; he's hoping to be ahead of the curve.

           For now, he relies on converted pick-up trucks to pick up computer tapes from each of his client's businesses and deliver them to The Vault. There's still an object changing hands. But someday, he plans to sell off the trucks and replace them with wire. Data would be transferred with a key stroke, eliminating the need for the rows of computer tapes. "This may not have to be a bank vault anymore," Gordon speculates. The Vault would simply consist of a couple of high-capacity computers. Getting his customers to accept the switch might be tough since people concerned with security aren't likely to trust a wire. Nevertheless, Gordon hopes to reduce his system from bullet-proof glass and a man-trap to encryption and a password. And Gordon's six security video cameras would be trained on one small glowing screen.

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