The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

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

Volume 1 Issue 4

Monday, 2 Sept 1985


o The Case of the Broken Buoy
Matt Bishop
o Inaction; Buoys will be buoys; KAL 007; Malpractice
o Health Hazards of CRT Use
Brint Cooper
Robin Cooper
o Medical Software
Brint Cooper
o Rolm's Hawk-32
Doug Bryan

Inaction; Buoys will be buoys; KAL 007; Malpractice

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@SRI-CSLA.ARPA>
Mon 2 Sep 85 14:05:15-PDT
The issue of the lobstermen indeed rested on the negligence of not repairing
the buoy.  (As noted in RISKS-1.2, the weather buoy went unrepaired for
three months.)  

Negligence and inaction in the presence of informed knowledge are likely to
be the source of more lawsuits in the future.  For example, the NY Times of
1 September 85 had an article by Richard Witkin on KAL 007.

  Evidence introduced in lawsuits filed in connection with the Soviet downing
  of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 suggests that American radar operators
  knew hours beforehand that the jetliner was off course and heading into
  Soviet airspace.

  The words, "We should warn him", presumably referring to the plane's pilot,
  were heard at the Government's civil air-traffic control station in Alaska
  as the Boeing 747 strayed off course toward its fatal encounter with a
  Soviet fighter plane two years ago today, according to the documents.
  The documents were submitted Friday as evidence in damage suits filed
  against the United States Government by relatives of the 269 people who
  died in the incident.

Medical malpractice suits have been on the upswing, and doctors are taking
extraordinary measures to compensate -- such as higher prices and otherwise
unnecessary tests and drugs.  But the question of what constitutes
computer-related malpractice is likely to emerge as a very sticky one, e.g.,
faulty computer system design, life-critical application programming, and
sloppy computer operation.  And what about a debugger or maintainer who
notices something fishy but does not carry through?  A remarkable case of a
casual observer playing a significant role took place on 1 Sept 85 when a
passenger on People Express Flight 183 from Dulles to Newark noticed minutes
after take-off that a cowling was missing on one of the engines.  (The plane
returned to Dulles.)  Imagine a lawsuit against a company, which in turn
sues the programmer.  The potential for legal confusion relating to computer
systems is really quite awesome, and the confusion has just begun.  Suppose
the windshear-warning system is finally installed (with the 31 May 84
near-disaster on take-off of a UA 727 and the recent crash providing an
impetus), and suppose that program has a bug?  Suppose the computer is not
working on landing?  There are some very serious questions that must be
raised.  The incidence of high-award law suits elsewhere is likely to
provide a strong forcing function.

Re: health hazards of CRT use

Brint Cooper <abc@BRL.ARPA>
Fri, 30 Aug 85 21:56:09 EDT
To balance this discussion, we need to include risks to pregnant women
and their born and unborn children of television sets that run 18 hours
a day in the home.  

Keep in mind:  X-radiation is generally produced by the very high
voltages traditionally used in color television sets and composite-video
color monitors.  Many of the monochrome monitors need no such voltages
and, so, produce no such radiation.  

Since most folks are now buying color TVs for their homes, we need to
examine that aspect of safety as well, especially since many of them are
used as monitors for home computers and video games.

Brint Cooper

Re: health hazards of CRT use

Robin Cooper < >
Sun, 1 Sep 85 12:13:49 cdt
Yes, that seems right, though I wonder what the facts are concerning
how close one sits to the device. People spend more time a few feet
away from their terminals than their TVs.

Robin Cooper

Re: health hazards of CRT use

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@SRI-CSLA.ARPA>
Mon 2 Sep 85 21:10:33-PDT

There is also discussion in the literature on physical and psychological
problems resulting from sitting in front of your terminal for hours, most
notably back and neck problems, tension, stress, anxiety, and subsequent
depression.  This forum is not really the place to discuss another relevant
aspect of the problem, but let me just mention it anyway and then discourage
further commentary on it:  the standard American junk-food diet of coffee,
colas, and caffeine generally, orange juice, sugar, chocolate (containing
both sugar and caffeine), refined white flour, fried foods, and so on, is
now being linked with making many of those problems worse.

Brint Cooper <abc@BRL.ARPA>
Fri, 30 Aug 85 22:00:55 EDT
cc:       risks@SRI-CSL.ARPA
Subject:  Medical Software

Actually, culpability for mistakes caused by medical diagnosis software
could be placed with the same person who is responsible for correct
interpretation of all diagnosis aids:  the physician him/herself.
Programmers, like authors of medical texts, are providing tools for the
physician, not replacing him or her.

What we CAN do as computer scientists, et al., is to educate the
medical profession to the limitations of these tools as well as to their
benefits.  For ourselves, the goals should include error and risk
reduction as we continue to discuss.


Rolm's Hawk-32

Sat 31 Aug 85 22:58:00-PDT
Speaking of possible hazards due to hardware failure, has anyone out there
had any experience with Rolm's 32 bit Mil Spec machine the Hawk-32?  Since 
the Hawk is a Mil Spec machine, I'm sure it will be used in situations where
failure could lead loss of life.

I would be interested in hearing about the Hawk's environment limitations,
mean time between failures and any other experiences people have had with
the machine.


    [POSTSCRIPT: A few of you complained that the first issue had too much
     of a military flavor.  It is interesting that except for this last
     item, this issue and the previous issue had almost none!  On the
     other hand, the problems we are dealing with are universal, and
     we should be able to learn from all relevant discussions...  

     I had some complaints about the format breaking your dedigestifying
     programs.  I hope this is better, but if it really is, your programs 
     must be pretty stupid.  I did not change anything except the trailer.
     So maybe I don't have it right yet?

     Others complained that the issues were too big and did not come out
     often enough.  (I explained why -- I wasn't around.)  Now you will
     undoubtably complain that that they are too small and too frequent.
     But it really depends on what contributions are available.  PGN]

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