Computer given guarded welcome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 1999, 12:00am

A Cray supercomputer arriving at the Observatory this week will be kept under 24-hour surveillance by closed-circuit camera and made available to only a handful of officers with security clearance.

Strict security was a condition of the export licence granted by the US Commerce Department, which approved the sale last month.

'It's all political. We need an export licence from the States because it's considered a hi-tech strategic commodity,' said Observatory senior scientific officer in weather forecasting Chan Chik-cheung.

The computer will be used to improve weather forecasting.

'Only a handful of people are allowed to use it - people who specialise in numerical weather prediction programming.

'It will be kept behind a glazed wall and monitored by closed-circuit TV 24 hours a day. When someone goes in, someone else would definitely know.' Mr Chan said it would be the first time a senior officer such as himself had been banned from using observatory equipment.

'I can see it, but not touch it.' The computer could be used to develop nuclear weapons, he said, though the Observatory would be using it to develop mathematical models for weather forecasting.

'The atmosphere is the most complicated system to model. If a supercomputer can model the atmosphere, you can use it to model anything, say a nuclear bomb.' The $10 million Cray SV1 from Silicon Graphics runs at 21,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), making it the fastest computer in Hong Kong. It will be housed at the Observatory's Tsim Sha Tsui headquarters.

Its sale almost stalled because of anti-China sentiment in the US Congress over allegations in the Cox report that Beijing had been stealing US nuclear weapons secrets and using Hong Kong as an underground conduit for them.

Observatory assistant director Lam Chiu-ying played down the tight security, saying it was policy in government departments.

'The possibilities for mischief are great, especially with high-speed computers and the Internet,' he said. 'It's just prudent to restrict access to them.

'People have been caught using government computers to do naughty things on the Internet.'