From Sarin To Software

The M Group served some of the giants of Japanese industry and government. Honda contracted work to the software developer, as did NTT, the telephone monopoly. So did the Defense Agency, Japan's Pentagon. No one had any complaints--until last week, when investigators in Tokyo linked the M Group's five software firms to the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. Police suspect that Aum followers wrote programs for more than 90 unwitting government and corporate clients. As far as investigators can determine, the first contracts were awarded in 1996--one year after the cult mounted a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo's subway system that killed 12, injured 5,000 and stunned the nation.

Was Japan on the verge of an Aum cyberattack? Managers of compromised systems didn't wait to find out. They blocked Web sites, shut down networks and closed databases. They have reason to be nervous. This year alone, hackers have vandalized 11 government Web sites with messages denouncing Japan's past militarism. Those attacks, plus Aum's violent past, stoked fears that the quasi-Buddhist cult was plotting to cripple the country's computer systems. Cult spokesman Fumihiro Joyu described Aum's software work as "merely economic and not based on any malicious intent." Few Japanese were reassured.

Technology has always been Aum's secret weapon. In the 1980s its efforts to peddle bargain PCs through cult-owned electronics shops blossomed into a $1 billion empire. The cult's half-blind guru, founder Shoko Asahara, lured engineers, chemists and computer scientists from Japan's elite universities, then put them to work developing weapons of mass destruction. Cloistered in a secret "ministry of science," these followers produced the sarin nerve gas released at five Tokyo subway stations. After the attack, police rounded up cult leaders, including Asahara, now on trial for multiple murder. But junior members not implicated in the subway attack revived Aum's computer shops and established the M Group to exploit Japan's shortage of software engineers.

M's niche: subcontracting. It employed some 40 software designers--all Aum members--who worked for little or no pay. Cheap labor meant that Aum companies could underbid competitors by as much as one third, allowing them to land assignments from prominent high-tech companies--the biggest recipients of government contracts. "It is common to have layers and layers of subcontractors," says a Tokyo-based software consultant. "Companies that receive orders might have no idea who is actually doing the job." From now on, you can be sure they will.

Photo: Cyber worries: Five years after the subway nerve-gas attack (left), Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu denied that the cult's programming work for government and corporate clients threatened Japan's computer systems