The RISKS Digest
Volume 1 Issue 05

Wednesday, 4th September 1985

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

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The Strategic Defense Initiative
Joseph Weizenbaum
1.5 million Ford engines need recall?
Hal Murray
Risks in CAD, etc.
Eugene Miya
crt & non-crt risks
Mike McLaughlin
Computerworld… on Union Carbide and NJ false arrests
Charlie Spitzer
More on false arrests

The Strategic Defense Initiative

Joseph Weizenbaum <JOSEPH@MIT-XX.ARPA>
Wed 4 Sep 85 14:19:15-EDT

Greetings !

I've just been introduced to the RISKS b-board you have undertaken to maintain. It is a good idea. What stimulates this particular outburst is John McCarthy's observation that many of the computer people who maintain that Star Wars can't be made to work for technical reasons, e.g., those brought forth by Parnas, are people who have opposed many other government initiatives. I imagine he means among others the war on Viet Nam, the MX missile, the ABM initiative of years ago, the administration's policies vis-a-vis Nicaragua, Cuba and El Salvador, and so on and on.

I confess I've been on what from John's point of view must be characterized as the wrong side on each of the above controversies. But then John has been on what I would have to see as the wrong side on all these questions. Does that relieve me of the obligation to guard my intellectual honesty by studying his actual arguments? If so, then the very possibility of dialog between holders of opposing views becomes impossible.

It is, however, important for people who indeed have a point of view to make their positions clear, at least not to hide them. Their doing so ought not to disqualify what they then have to say. For myself, I find it even more important to actually draw on my quasi pacifist position in arguing about Star Wars and similar issues and to explicate the connections I make. I do believe (with Parnas and many others) that the software required simply cannot be produced to the degree of confidence without which it would be a meaningless exercise. I don't want to rehash the various technical arguments here, however. Let me just rest on the well publicized statements of CPSR and of Parnas. I want to say in addition, however, that I would not support the SDI initiative even if I thought it to be technically feasible. In that, John is quite right. I'm afraid that many of the computer people who rest on the technical arguments alone leave the impression that these alone constitute their objections to the program. Perhaps that is the position of many objectors in the computer community. I think, however, there are many who would join me in resisting the program even if it could be shown to be technically feasible. I think John is quite right in asking that that be made explicit where it applies.

This is not the place to air political and ideological positions. For clarity's sake, I just want to add to the above that I believe it to be necessary to the survival of us all that we come to some social, political, cultural accommodation with the rest of the peoples of the world even when, or especially when, they organize their societies differently than we do ours. SDI is in the tradition of the great technological fixes which appear to their authors to relieve them of the responsibility to confront underlying human problems.

Besides, SDI is a giant step to the further militarization of space and of our society. I oppose that as well.

Joseph Weizenbaum.

1.5 Million Ford Engines Need Recall?

Hal Murray <>
Tue, 3 Sep 85 12:18:36 PDT

This morning, my radio said something about a consumer group wanting Ford to recall 1.5 million engines. Nobody knows what's wrong, but they are blaming it on the computer. (I didn't get the fine print. I wasn't awake.) Anybody know if that's the real problem or just a convenient scapegoat?

Risks in CAD, etc.

Eugene Miya <eugene@AMES-NAS.ARPA>
3 Sep 1985 0859-PDT (Tuesday)

Something, I have been wondering about, perhaps for future discussion might concern liabilities of CAD products. It seems more merchandise I purchase is shoddy, and I am beginning to wonder what some of the consequences of “making the metal a bit thinner to save…” could be. I realize we are using CAD and simulation tools to make things more efficient, perhaps the case of the over efficient engine which flamed out when it flew through rain [as reposted in SEN, I believe] might be a case in point. What were our margins of safety in the over-engineering we did in the past? Any studies yet?

Lastly, regarding mail formats: I have run on a gamut of different mailers [my current one, mh, is not bad], but I can sympathize with those having problems. It seems Peter's comment about programs was a bit harsh. I used to read netmail on an IBM machine which concatentated all letters and was destructive [read once mail].

—eugene miya NASA Ames Research Center

crt & non-crt risks

Mike McLaughlin <mikemcl@nrl-csr>
Wed, 4 Sep 85 18:22:22 edt

It is important we separate crt from non-crt risks. X-rays, color-perception, & possibly eye fatigue I see as crt related. Posture may be, for a person tied to the tube for extended periods. Junk food is a non-crt risk, but may be a denial-of-service risk, if introduced into certain apertures around the crt. Might also be a hazard to your health, if conductive.

X- & like radiation: I am done producing children, I hope. So does my wife. Unless radiation reaches carcinogenic levels, I am not concerned for me. My children all use/will use crts, unless some other display becomes more economical in the near future. We have 5 children, all of age. I am concerned about them.

Posture: As an occasional, voluntary, crt user, my posture is my problem. Take the paper out of my office; or give me a clerical/data entry type job; then I will see posture as a crt/computer risk. Any obstetrician will worry about any woman who sits in any one position for long periods. At one point in one pregnancy my wife had to fly home while I drove alone - solely so she would not have to sit still too long. (Many years ago I was told that the blood supply to the brain passed through the peri-anal region. This accounts for the number of dumb comments and sleeping attendees at various conferences with inadequate breaks.)

Color-perception: When I go home after dark tonight, the white line will be pink. No, I'm not on anything. If the screen were pink, the line would be green. If color sensitivity mattered to me… say, if I performed color- matching titrations in a hospital, or put color-coded resistors & capicators into non-ICs, I would worry about color perception.

Considering the liability discussion in V1 #4, perhaps we all should. In 1956 or 1957 I ran across the proceedings of something-or-other on human factors in submarine design. Book was pretty beat up, so it had been around for a while. It cited some railroad safety research on color perception. I think the RR stuff was pre WW-II. Said red & green were neat colors for signal lights. Also said yellow symbols on a black background were the best combination for a symbolic display… and that the reverse was the next best. Hence, road signs. Amber screens… ?

Eye-fatigue: Not crt-unique, but… look at anything long enough, your eyes will tire. Look at anything slightly fuzzy, & your eyes will tire quickly, as they try to focus on the un-focusable.

Summary: If a tired terminal operator hits a tree on the way home, it might be due to poor color perception, fatigue due to poor posture (read: furniture), eye fatigue due to poor colors, poor contrast, fuzzy images. It might be a financial disaster for the firm that employed said deceased. Some attorney might look closely into the work situation, and computers would get a bad name when we are really talking about bad management of the computer-workplace.

- Mike

Computerworld Aug 19 articles

Charlie Spitzer <Spitzer%pco@CISL-SERVICE-MULTICS.ARPA>
Tue, 3 Sep 85 13:07 MST

Readers may be interested in 2 articles from Aug 19 Computerworld.

page 6. Union Carbide modeling program given wrong data.

Discusses wrong information about gases input to a program that was supposed to model gas cloud dispersal. Notable quote: “These programs have been sold to safety people as opposed to engineers, because [the systems] provide good [public relations], are attractive visually and can provide a fairly inexpensive way of dealing with a problem you hope you'll never have.”

page 12. On-line crime suspect system implicated in false arrest.

Discusses case of a NJ woman arrested, strip searched and jailed on two separate occasions because of inadequate information stored in the NCIC computer.


More on False Arrests

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@SRI-CSLA.ARPA>
Tue 3 Sep 85 13:56:12-PDT

In the past quarter year, there were two different stories of people winding up in jail due to computer-related snafus, and an earlier story that serendipitously goes along with them.

1. The AnchoRages Of Sin

An article on page 17 of the 15 April 1985 issue of ComputerWorld entitled

“DMV computer error puts innocent motorist in jail”

provides us with another software glitch with harmful side-effects. (Brad Davis [b-davis@@utah-cs.ARPA] was the first to point this one out to me.)

The article (by Kathleen Burton) details how a mistake in programming the new Alaskan Department of Motor Vehicles computer system resulted in a motorist spending a night in a Fairbanks jail. The computer indicated (erroneously) that C. R. Griffin was driving with a suspended license. The article also said that only by human intervention were 400 additional driver's licenses not erroneously suspended. Apparently the database kept records of all violations in the past @i[five] years, but was supposed to search only over the last @i[two] years for motorists who should be suspended. A programmer was quoted as saying that “the cost of correcting the mistake [in the program] was insignificant.”

2. Shirley There Must Be a Way Out

And then, on 25 April 1985, the Associated Press ran a story about congressional hearings on the FBI national crime computer. Two incidents were included. The first involved an airline flight attendant who was falsely arrested and detained because of incorrect information in the FBI's national crime computer. Sheila Jackson Stossier was arrested on 28 October 1983 at the New Orleans airport, because a woman named Shirley Jackson was wanted by Texas authorities. She wound up in jail for the night and detained in Louisiana for five days. She now has an arrest record, and her married name Stossier is listed in the computer as an alias. Coincidentally, another Shirley (Jones) was also wrongly arrested because another woman alias Shirley Jones was listed in the computer — despite the facts that they had different birthdays, were six inches apart in height, and 70 pounds in weight. “Despite this, the Sheriff's office refused to drop the charges.” (To make matters worse, it was later determined that the wanted Shirley was already in jail at the time!)

3. One in Five Warrant Records Were Wrong — Poor Odds

David Burnham (NY Times News Service) reported the following related story on 12 Feb 1985.

A Michigan man filed suit charging that he was wrongfully arrested five times in 14 months after an arrest warrant for a man using his name was placed in the national computer system of the FBI. The man, Terry Dean Rogan, charged that four of the arrests occurred after Michigan police had made an unsuccessful effort to get the warrant changed. Rogan contends and the police confirm that the man actually being sought was another person using Rogan's stolen identity and credit cards. Rogan, who is 27 years old, is not wanted for any crime.

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