This computer center is so top secret no cameras are allowed inside -- well, sort of.
"It would be like photographing a missile site," Carroll H. Hynson Jr., the Maryland Lottery spokesman, warns with a straight face while negotiating the ground rules for a visiting reporter.
"Security," he stresses again. "No reporters have ever been inside before. Well, you can bring a photographer, but the cameras will have to stay outside."
This is the central nervous system of the $984-million-a-year state lottery system -- housed in an otherwise innocuous office complex in Columbia's Gateway Industrial Park.
It's where ticket purchases for the state lottery are recorded, where the winning numbers for the state Keno game are generated and where the game cards for the Match 5, Pick 3, Pick 4 and instant scratch-off games are stored.
A tiny sticker on the building's front door quietly announces "MARYLAND LOTTERY" and two video cameras record those passing by. But precautions taken by the G-Tech Corp., the private contractor that runs the state's gambling operation, go far beyond.
Inside, the receptionist smiles from behind a plate of glass. She controls further access with an electronic security door.
Past that barrier, Victor Contino, the company's operations director, introduces himself, points to a row of theater-weight curtains along a nearby wall and tantalizes with childlike glee: "There's space-age stuff beyond that curtain. . . . We'll show you that later."
Then he launches into a spiel about the company's security measures.
G-Tech maintains a backup system in Landover, about 20 miles from Columbia, in case something goes wrong, Mr. Contino says.
If both computer facilities were to go down, he says, "they've probably dropped an atomic bomb. Everything would have to blow up. The least of our problems is going to be buying a lottery ticket."
In strolls a news photographer -- camera in hand. No problem. On with the tour.
Mr. Contino leads the way through doors that can be opened only by magnetic cards -- to a mock convenience store.
Here, lottery agents -- usually store managers -- learn how to display lottery posters and where to place lottery terminals. Nearby, two dozen agents take a class on operating the terminals.
Mr. Contino briefly leaves. An assistant takes over. "You have to be escorted back and forth," she earnestly reiterates. "This is a secure facility."
Then comes Joseph Cavallo, G-Tech's control manager, and the promised moment of drama. He dims the room lights and pushes a button to draw back the curtains, unveiling a huge window beyond which is G-Tech's computer center.
This is it: the lottery's brain; 240 telephones connect this room to the state's 3,800 lottery terminals. The photographer's camera fires away -- drawing no objections.
As it turns out, the scale of the computer center is testimony to the huge amount of computing power that can be put into small packages these days.
It boils down to four workers, a dozen personal computers, a stack of other electronic devices with small bright red and green bulbs and another colorful display -- projected on a white wall -- of how all the state's lottery terminals are functioning.
Toward the room's rear and locked in a small Plexiglas case are two personal computers that generate 20 winning numbers every five minutes for the $203-million-a-year Keno game, the state lottery system's second highest moneymaker. The two computers also check Keno players' picks and can verify 30 winning numbers per millisecond.
Back to the security lesson.
Workers in the room say they don't even know who has the keys to the locked case securing the two Keno computers.
If hackers were to try to break into the Keno system, Mr. Cavallo says, they'd have to make it to this room, cut through the Plexiglas case and know or somehow bypass nine access codes.
To rig the game, they'd have to figure out how to insert their numbers into the constant stream of figures generated by the machines.
It's virtually impossible, Mr. Cavallo assures. No, he adds: "Not virtually, it is impossible."
So why all the wariness about letting a reporter and photographer just take a look?
"A lottery's reputation is perception," Mr. Contino says. "Every precaution the lottery and the state can take, they have to take."
Just one more thing, "Please, don't print the address of the building," Mr. Hynson says. "Security."