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 10 Issue 13

Thursday 28 June 1990


o The F9 factoring result
Ron Rivest via J.Bidzos/S.Kent/S.Crocker/TMPLee
o Risks from using laptops with cellular phones
Jan I Wolitzky
o Re: carpal tunnel syndrome
Mike Tanner
Henry Spencer
o Re: The Hubble Telescope
Steve Bellovin
Henry Spencer
o My A320 "Article"
Gregory Travis
o Re: The A320's attacks of nerves (Gimli)
Robert Dorsett
J.G. Mainwaring
o Virus experiences in GDR
Klaus Brunnstein
o A misdirected letter or Chain mail
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

The F9 factoring result

Theodore Lee <lee@TIS.COM>
Wed, 27 Jun 90 22:19:44 -0400
Thanks to Robert Silverman for keeping many people honest.
As an additional effort to that end, I attach an analysis of
the recent factoring effort, done by Ron Rivest.  The early
reports of RSA's demise have been greatly exaggerated...
Note: Be sure and read the end of Rivest's note.
Jim Bidzos, RSA Data Security

To: Whom It May Interest (Feel free to distribute further...)
From:   Ronald L. Rivest
Date:   June 21, 1990
Re: Recent Factoring Achievement
    (Preliminary draft; may contain typos or other inaccuracies.
    Please send corrections to

This note is in response to the numerous inquiries I've received regarding
the recent factoring of a 155-digit number by A. Lenstra, M. Manasse, and
others.  (See the New York Times article of 6/20/1990 by G. Kolata.)
This note attempts specifically to correct some of the misimpressions that
may arise from a reading of such popular press articles.

Using an ingenious new algorithm, Lenstra, Manasse, and others have
factored the 155-digit number known as "F9", the ninth Fermat number:
        F9 = 2^(2^9) + 1 = 2^(512) + 1 .
In binary, this number has the form
where there are 511 zeros altogether.  (F9 is a 513-bit number.)
This is a fascinating development, and the researchers involved are to be
congratulated for this accomplishment.

The algorithm used is known as the "number field sieve", or "NFS" (not
to be confused with a network protocol of the same acronym!).  The NFS
algorithm is described in the Proceedings of the 1990 ACM STOC Conference.
The NFS algorithm is based on an idea due to Pollard, as developed further by
Arjen Lenstra, Hendrik W. Lenstra, and Mark S. Manasse.

The NFS algorithm is specifically designed to factor numbers that,
like F9, have a very simple structure: they are of the form
        a^b + c
where c is relatively small.  (For F9, we have a=2, b=512, and c=1.)
Some simple extensions of this algorithm are also possible, to handle
numbers whose binary representation has many zeros, and related kinds
of numbers (ternary, etc.)  Numbers that have such a special structure are
extremely rare and are unlikely to be encountered by chance.  That is,
the NFS algorithm does not apply to the kind of "ordinary" numbers that
arise in practical cryptography, such as using RSA.  They only apply to
numbers with "sparse" representations having few nonzero components.
(Let us call such numbers "rarefied".)

When working on a rarefied number, the NFS algorithm has an estimated
running time of the form (for an input number n):
        exp(1.56 (ln n)^1/3 (ln ln n)^2/3)          (1)
For n = F9, this evaluates to
        4.1 x 10^15 operations,
which, at 3.15 x 10^13 operations/year for a 1 MIP/sec machine (i.e. a
MIP-year), gives a workload estimate of
        130 MIP-years,
only off by a factor of two from the actual work of 275 MIP-years. (That is,
formula (1) may be roughly too low by a factor of two.)

It is instructive to see the effect of doubling the size of the number
being dealt with.  A 1024-bit (332-digit) rarefied number requires an estimated
        1.54 x 10^21 operations
    =   4.9 x 10^7 MIP-years,
a dramatic increase in difficulty.  The NFS algorithm algorithm is not a
"polynomial-time" algorithm; the difficulty of factoring still grows
**exponentially** with a polynomial function of the length of the input.

What has this to do with RSA and cryptography?  I think there are three
basic points:
    -- This development indicates that the status of factoring is
       still subject to further developments, and it is wise to be
       conservative in one's choice of key-length.
    -- The NFS algorithm may yet be generalized to handle "ordinary"
       numbers, and the potential impact of this should be considered.
    -- Factoring is still a very hard problem, despite everyone's best
       efforts to master it.

Regarding the further extensions of NFS to handle ordinary numbers, this is
judged to be a reasonable possibility by those working on NFS, so it is
helpful to consider what impact this may have.

It is conjectured (see the ACM STOC paper referenced above) that a successful
extension of the NFS algorithm to ordinary numbers would have a running time
of the form:
        exp(2.08 (ln n)^1/3 (ln ln n)^2/3)          (2)
This is similar to equation (1) except that the constant 1.56 is
replaced by the constant 2.08.  Note that a practical version of such
an extension does NOT yet currently exist (to the best of my
knowledge), but even granting its plausibility we arrive at an
estimate of the tie required to factor a 512-bit number of
        6.5 x 10^20 operations
    =   2 x 10^7 MIP-years
which (in my opinion) is a substantial degree of security.  It is
interesting to note that this work factor is actually GREATER than that
required by the ``standard'' factoring algorithms (e.g., the quadratic sieve),
which have a running time of
        exp((ln n)^1/2 (ln ln n)^1/2);
for a 512-bit number, this gives a work-factor estimate of only
        6.7 x 10^19 operations.
Indeed, the NFS algorithm (when extended) will be asymptotically superior than
the quadratic sieve algorithm, but will be slower for numbers with less
than about 200 digits.  That is, assuming that (2) is indeed the correct
running-time estimate for any extension of NFS, then NFS will not affect the
security of any numbers of less than about 215 digits.  So any "standards"
that have been considered using 512-bit RSA moduli are not likely to be
affected by any NFS extensions.  (At most, one could imagine that the
RSA key-generation process might be extended to check that the resulting
modulus n is not a rarefied number.)

In the truly worst-case scenario, we would have that an extension of
NFS would be found that allows ordinary numbers to be factored with a
work-factor that is governed by equation (1); in this case one would
need to adjust the sizes of moduli used by RSA upwards by a factor of
less than two to more than offset the new algorithm.  A factor of two
in size affects the running time of public-key encryption (or
signature verification) by a factor of four and the running time of
private-key encryption (or signature generation) by a factor of eight.
Noting that the speed of workstations has increased by a factor of
over 100 in the last decade (indeed, such factors have been the
technological advance that made the successful implementation of NFS
possible!), such performance penalties, if necessary, seem to be
easily absorbed by expected technological advances in the speeds of
the underlying RSA implementation technologies.  That is, the NFS-like
factoring algorithms do not, even in this worst-case scenario, prevent
successful implementations of the RSA cryptosystem.

As a cryptographer, I am actually very happy with all the effort that
is being spent trying to determine the exact level of difficulty of
factoring.  Achievements such as the recent development of NFS help to
pin down the best-possible rate of growth of the difficulty of
factoring, so that users of cryptographic schemes can pick key sizes
with an increased degree of confidence that unforeseen developments
are unlikely to occur.  The best way to ensure confidence in a
cryptographic system is to have it attacked vigorously and
continuously (but unsuccessfully) by well-qualified attackers.  If,
despite their best efforts, the difficulty of cracking the system
remains intrinsically exponential, then one can have a reasonably high
degree of confidence that the system is actually secure.  This is the
process we have been seeing at work in the recent work on factoring.
The results of the attacks can be used to guide the selection of the
necessary key size for a desired level of security (with an
appropriate margin of safety built in, of course).

(As a closing note, here's a prediction: I expect that the 128-digit
``challenge RSA cipher'' published in the August 1977 issue of
Scientific American to be cracked (probably by the quadratic sieve
algorithm or a variant, not NFS) during the next 1-3 years.  This
accomplishment will require substantially more computer time than the
275 MIP-years required to factor F9.)

Risks from using laptops with cellular phones

Jan I Wolitzky <>
Thu, 28 Jun 90 10:01:35 EDT
I'm concerned by the increased use of laptop computers with
cellular phones, to connect to remote host machines.  Given the
ready availability of scanner radios capable of receiving
cellular phone frequencies, this practice seems to amount to
broadcasting your passwords, proprietary information, etc., to
anyone who cares to listen.  (Yes, I know that federal law
prohibits listening to such calls, but everyone who has a scanner
or knows someone with one knows that it's done all the time.)
Is there any record of anyone breaking systems this way yet?
Has any company adopted a policy discouraging its employees from
using laptops with cellular phones, or, for that matter, from
broadcasting other sensitive information over cellular phones?

Jan Wolitzky, AT&T Bell Labs, Murray Hill, NJ; 201 582-2998
    att!mhuxd!wolit or
(Affiliation given for identification purposes only)

Re: info on carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) (RISKS-10.12)

Mike Tanner <>
Thu, 28 Jun 90 09:06:49 -0400
At the risk of turning this into a medical forum I wanted to add to the
excellent summary on carpal tunnel syndrome that there is a related problem
called ulnar nerve syndrome.  As with CTS, those of us who spend lots of time
using keyboards are prone to ulnar nerve syndrome, too.  The main difference
in the symptoms is that with CTS the numbness and tingling is in the thumb and
first two fingers, with UNS it is in the other two fingers and along the
outside of the forarm.  (When you "hit your funny bone", what you've done is
bash your ulnar nerve.  The symptoms are similar to that feeling, but they
don't go away.)

My wife's neurologist (she's been going through a bout of it) said there are
many causes, but a common one is some activity that constantly rubs the elbow.
In her case it is almost certainly typing while resting her elbows on the arms
of a chair.  One danger is that carpal tunnel syndrome is so hot, such a fad
right now, that a physician might automatically connect "numbness" with
"programmer" and say "carpal tunnel".  My wife's physician did this, and only
changed his mind after we had looked in some medical books and found that CTS
symptoms did not match hers.  (Physicians deny that they reason this way.
Experience tells otherwise.)

Treatment is basically like CTS:  ice, avoid bending the elbow as much as
possible (not easy to do), don't do things that rub the elbow a lot,
anti-inflammation drugs.  There is surgery, but unlike CTS, ulnar nerve
surgery is not a good option.  Apparently it has about a 50% chance of making
things worse, according to my wife's neurologist.  (That might have been an
estimate that took the nature of her condition into account, i.e., there are
cases where it has a high probability of success, but hers isn't one of them.)

-- mike

Re: info on carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)

Thu, 28 Jun 90 14:11:52 EDT
>One point the author does not mention is that the "force-depression curve" of
>your keyboard may also play a role.  It is better to have a linear
>relationship between force and depression...
>...  People have suggested that this sort of dynamic may
>aggravate or even induce CTS...

What was the incidence of CTS twenty years ago, when electric typewriters
routinely had non-linear force-depression curves?  Or before that, when
manual typewriters required far more finger pressure than any modern
keyboard?  Yet again, we have here a case of a "computer risk" that isn't
really new, and data from olden days could be very useful in deciding what
*really* causes it.

Data would be particularly useful because it's easy to construct an argument
that points in precisely the opposite direction!  Once you've pushed a
non-linear keyboard key "over the hump", you can relax pressure.  But with
a linear keyboard, you have to push all the way down, since you get no
"that's enough" feedback until the key hits bottom.

Some of this may be a risk not of nonlinear keyboards, but of lack of proper
training.  Pre-computer typing courses taught you to *strike* the keys rather
than *pushing* them, so your muscles were already relaxing when the key
bottomed out.  One side effect of the proliferation of keyboards is that far
more people are using them without formal training, or with training from
"touch typing" programs that teach you which keys to hit but don't teach
posture or hand position.
                                         Henry Spencer at U of Toronto Zoology

Re: The Hubble Telescope (RISKS-10.10)

Thu, 28 Jun 90 00:01:37 EDT
> Tonight's news was really distressing -- that there is a fundamental
> mirror flaw that cannot be repaired until 1993 or so.

It's not *quite* that bad.  The optics do seem to have a significant case
of spherical aberration -- so perfect that it's almost certainly the
result of an incorrectly-figured shape, rather than a manufacturing
deviation from the desired shape -- and this will hurt the cameras
badly, but the spectrographs and the photometer (3 out of 5 of the
instruments) shouldn't be badly affected.  Unfortunately, the affected
instruments are the ones that would produce all the nice crowd-pleasing
pictures, so the public-relations disaster is much worse than the
scientific one.

The Wide Field / Planetary Camera was slated for replacement in 1993-4
anyway, and it may be possible to build the replacement in time for a 1991
flight (about the earliest NASA could launch a repair mission anyway).

The big question is, how did this happen?

Henry Spencer at U of Toronto Zoology                            utzoo!henry

Hubble telescope

Thu, 28 Jun 90 16:49:21 EDT
The Hubble space telescope, which cost $1.5e9 to build (and a lot
more to store and launch), isn't working properly.  There appears to
be a problem with one of the two mirrors being flawed.  Weren't
they tested?  Yes, they were -- but they were tested individually,
not in the final assembly.  It seems that the test jig would have
cost too much.

Lessee -- the components all worked individually, but not as a system.  Where
have I heard that one before?
                                    --Steve Bellovin

My A320 "Article"

Gregory TRAVIS <>
Mon, 25 Jun 90 21:51:33 EST
Just to get the record straight, I originally wrote and posted the entire
story to rec.aviation, a newsgroup I felt would appreciate the humor without
undermining the serious aviation-related discussions also posted there.

I considered submitting the story to RISKS orginally, but decided against it
because of the harm it might have done to RISKS serious nature.  Robert
Dorsett, I believe, passed the submission on to RISKS (through PGN?) much to my
delight.  Personally, considering the flood of mail I've received, I think we
might well start a serious discussion in RISKS about the risks of computer
types who cannot recognize a blunt-faced satire when it hits them.

Gregory Travis

Re: The A320's attacks of nerves

Robert Dorsett <>
Wed, 27 Jun 90 21:50:44 -0500
Robert L. Smith <> wrote:

>    I'm afraid Robert Dorsett is mistaken when he states "And nobody's
>crashed a 757/767 yet. . ."  On July 23, 1983, a 767 operating as Air
>Canada Flight 143 crashed at Gimli, Manitoba.

Actually, it's difficult to classify that as a crash.  Part of the dif-
ficulty is terminology: "crash" is not defined by either ICAO or the FAA.
The two relevant terms are "accidents" and "incidents."

US NTSB 830-3 defines "aircraft accident" as "an occurrence associated with
the operation of an aircraft which takes place between the time any person
boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have
disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in
which the aircraft receives substantial damage."

"Incidents" are anything other than crashes, which could affect the future
safety of operations.

The Air Canada landing at Gimli can certainly qualify as an accident.  How-
ever "crash," as used by the industry in general, has more permanent connot-
ations.  The airplane was under control at impact, did not suffer substantial
damage, and nobody was seriously injured.  I therefore hesitate to classify it
a crash.

On the other hand, there *was* a rather nasty incident in Florida a few years
ago, a result of a "hard landing."  The airplane was damaged sufficiently
enough that it was a marginal-recovery issue, but it remained under pilot
control, and nobody was seriously injured.  Both the Gimli 767 and that
767 are back in the air.

Perhaps I should rephrase my original comment: there have been two A320 hull
losses.  There have been no 757 or 767 hull losses.

> That crash may well have been a proper "risk"  subject.

Indeed; it's been popular in the past.  Here's the review of _Freefall_ I
posted to rec.aviation last year.  It may be of interest to RISKS readers.


_Freefall_ (by William and Marilyn Hoffer, St. Martin's Press: New York, 1989)
deals with the near-crash of Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767-200 which ran
out of fuel over near Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1983.

The book is partially investigative reporting, partially schlock: while it
provides a detailed accounting of the events leading up to the eventual landing,
it also wastes an enormous amount of space on what the passengers think, feel,
etc--and in that respect rather closely resembles the style Arthur Haily used
in _Airport_.  In other words, it's light reading, and tries to be something
for everyone.  Fortunately, though, the authors kindly segregate the chapters
into what's happening in the cockpit, and what's happening elsewhere.  If one
sticks to the "Cockpit" (clearly labelled) chapters, it's tolerable (but since
the book itself is only 263 pages of double-spaced large print and large
margins, and less than half of it deals with the technical issues, the
$17.95 price tag isn't exactly worth it).

To save people the some time and effort, here's what it boils down to:

1.  A fuel-metering device failed on a previous flight.  A maintenance worker,
through trial and error, got the system to work again.  A subsequent worker
mistakenly flagged the system as inoperative.

2.  To verify how much fuel was on board, "dripsticks," a  series of fuel-
measurement devices mounted under the wings, were used.  A flotation device
("donut") is mounted on the top of the stick; when the stick is released, it
drops.  Where it stops (a length unit, represented by how much of the stick
is pointing out) can be used to determine how much fuel is in that
compartment.  The procedure then is to use a chart to convert the unit read
into liters, then to kilos, then, finally, to use a conversion factor to
get pounds.  All such measurements are then added to determine the total load
on board.  In Flight 143's case, an incorrect conversion factor was used for
the last step.  Confusion among ground workers and the flight crew as to the
correct conversion factor (the 767 was the only metric aircraft in Air Canada
service) induced them to launch with half tanks.

3.  The captain launched with his fuel metering system inoperative, in
violation of the minimum equipment list (but there may have been justification
for doing so, as several references contradicted each other on this point).
To overcome the loss of the totalizer, they set the flight management system
with what they thought was a full load, which then provided them with a fuel
burn total for the rest of the flight.  GIGO.

4.  They ran out of fuel near Winnipeg, Manitoba, which resulted in a loss
of nearly all of their electrical power, including the EFIS and EICAS systems
(electronic flight instrumentation and engine control and monitoring in-
strumentation).  Radios and backup instrumentation was supplied by battery
power (and, initially, APU power); some hydraulic power was obtained from
a ram air turbine (optional equipment, I believe, on the 767--Air Canada
bought them in anticipation of extended-range twin oceanic operations).  The
turbine serviced basic flight controls, but did not provide power for other
surfaces, such as flaps.  They were eventually forced to deadstick the plane
to an abandoned military base near Gimli.  They landed on top of a social
event being held on a disused runway, fortunately not killing anyone.  The
nose gear collapsed, there was a small fire (from the nose brakes) and there
was some damage to the airplane, but the plane was eventually put back in

5.  The flight crew was initially fired, then rehired.  The first officer,
according to the book, is starting his captain's training.

The Gimli Glider

John (J.G.) Mainwaring <RM312A@BNR.CA>
Thu, 28 Jun 90 09:52:00 EDT
Robert L. Smith in his posting re: the A320's attack of nerves refers to the
crash of an Air Canada Boeing 767 at Gimli Manitoba.  He seems to be using the
word 'crash' in a sense with which I was previously unfamiliar.

The plane ran out of fuel because of a combination of factors.  The fuel guages
(computerized?) were malfunctioning, and Air Canada was in the early stages of
conversion to metric.  Reports at the time suggested that the refuelling was
measured in pounds and the measurement was used un- or incorrectly converted in
a formula that expected kilos.

When the engines flamed out, the rather small WW 2 training field at Gimli was
the closest airport, 100 miles away.  The pilot was highly praised for making a
successful dead stick landing, and the plane became known as the Gimli glider.
I believe it was flown out a few days later, without the passengers and with a
very carefully calculated fuel load.

The subsequent investigation was somewhat acrimonious, with the airline
pointing out that the pilot had ultimate responsibility for the fuel on board,
opposed by a strong public sympathy for the pilot and a feeling that the system
was designed to fail.  I suppose the risks are pretty much the same whether a
computer was involved or not - large organizations occasionally screw up when
they try to run complicated systems.  This case also shows the value of
properly trained people retaining ultimate control of the system.

Virus experiences in GDR

Klaus Brunnstein <>
22 Jun 90 15:38 GMT+0100
On June 19-21, 1990, IBM held some kind of a development conference for GDR
universities, in the research center of the ministry for science and technology
in (east) Berlin-Koepenick. Similar to an annual conference for West German
universities (`IBM university forum'), invited speakers from West and East
German universities as well as from IBM informed about their actual work. A
broad diversity of areas was covered, from CD-ROM based 'Thesaurus Linguae
Graecae' to CAD, simulation of complex molecules and synthetic speech. The
conference was accompanied by an exhibition where many additional applications
and software products of scientific interest were shown by East and West German
scientiests as well as IBM people, on IBM owned PS-2s. Many demonstration
diskettes were freely available.

Among the exhibitors, the Virus Test Center demonstrated how to detect and
eradicate viruses. In many discussions, we were surprised to learn that
many scientists regarded viruses as some kind of a joke as they had suffered
mainly from viruses of the funny kind, e.g. playing Yankee Doodle in the Bulga-
rian version "TP 44" or "legalizing marijuana"; only a few seemed to have
experiences in really damaging viruses such as Israeli or Dark Avenger. Yet at
the end of the exposition, our essential task was to eradicate some damaging
viruses such as Dark Avenger (the Bulgarian "Eddie" which broadly migrates
through Eastern Europe) from most of IBM's PS-2 as neither protection
nor careful work had been practized nor prescribed.

With surprise we learned that there existed a secret research unit in GDR
to which every virus or other threat had to be reported; this secret group
would then produce an antivirus and send it to concerned institutions. In its
latest version (which we hope to receive afterwards), 11 viruses could be
detected and eradicated.

Lesson learned: there should be a special antivirus service for exhibitions,
not only for large ones (in FRG's CeBIT and Systems exhibitions, about 15-20%
of the workstations and PCs were found to be infected *at exhibition's end*).

Klaus Brunnstein       University of Hamburg

A misdirected letter or Chain mail

Tue, 19 Jun 90 03:28 CST
Recently, the LISTSERV which I get my risks digests from sent me a copy of
one of those unsolicited mailings that I always get via the US MAIL.  You know
the type, "You can make 50,000 bucks overnight with my ...".  Yeah, yeah
right.  Those are one of the reasons (besides bills) why I dont go to my
mail box any more, and deal with electronic mail.

Now I get to deal with this kind of crapola via the BITNET?  Regardless of
whether or not the message was accidently sent to a LISTSERV and redistributed
to everyone that the LISTSERV knows about, I never should have been able to
receive the message.  LISTSERV software should be modified to include some
sort of authentication.  Granted, an individual with enough know-how can
bypass a simple "authentic address" in the "Received From/By:" headers, but
it would prevent those "whoops, I accidently did its...".

Maybe the author did, maybe he didn't.  Either way, I really dont enjoy reading
that stuff, and am sure that others don't as well.  Also, the proposed
scheme is a pyramid, and is quite illegal here in Il.  Anyone for prosecution?


      [Abuses of the BITNET and USENET RISKS addresses have happened
      before, although they could easily be blocked were it not for the
      intentional sandbox orientation.  Fortunately for the rest of
      us, we did not see the abuse.  The author did apologize to me
      that it was not intentional, however...   PGN]

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