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 12 Issue 52

Monday 21 October 1991


o The Future is Here
Amos Shapir
o The_RISKS_of_Geraldo
Andy Hawks
o Re: Police raid wrong house -- for second time
Amos Shapir
o Re: TRW
Bob Colwell
Anthony DeBoer
Steve Hollasch
o Re: buggy software
Mark R Cornwell
James B. Shearer
Byron Rakitzis
Richard Hanlon
Stephen G. Smith
Bob Wilson
David Parnas
David Chase
o Licensing Software Engineers
Christopher E Fulmer
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

The Future is Here

amos shapir <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 17:45:36 +0200
The Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is an independently budgeted
government agency, financed by a special tax (sometimes called, for historical
reasons, "TV license fee").  Since it does its own collection, it's sometimes
even more zealous than the IRS.  The following is a true incident that happened
to a friend of mine:

She received a notice from the IBA to pay back due taxes.  The strange thing
about it was that it was sent to an address she moved into just ten days
before, and was sure nobody but the landlord knew about.  While she was in the
IBA's office to settle the matter, she'd found out that due to recent
unification of government databases, the following information about her was
retrieved at a touch of a clerk's terminal key:

- Her new address (probably from the city's municipality);
- The type of each TV she'd owned since 1984 (dealers and importers
 are required to report that to the IBA);
- The dates in which she'd left and entered the country during that time
 (probably from the border police  passport control records).

All this was just information necessary for the specific case at hand; that Big
Computer probably knows a lot more about us.  In short, the future is here, and
it looks more Orwellian than Orwell could have ever imagined.

Amos Shapir, The Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, Dept. of Comp.Science. +972 2 585706


Andy Hawks <>
Wed, 16 Oct 91 18:41:23 MDT
I'm sure many of you saw or have heard/read about Geraldo Rivera's Now It Can
Be Told Program which featured a show on hackers a couple of weeks or so ago.

Well, by airing this program, it appears that Geraldo (or actually the
producers/editors of the show) have put at least one military computer at risk.

One segment of the program featured a "home video" of Dutch teenagers hacking.
This home video would occasionally focus in on the computer screen as the
hackers hacked.  As reporter Krista Bradford describes what is going on, the
screen shows:
|     quit
| 221 Goodbye.
| rugrcx>
|        telnet
| Trying
| Connected to
| Escape character is '^]'.
| Xenix K3-4 (
| login:
|       dquayle
| Password:_

Then we learn that previously, the hackers have gained superuser privileges to
the system.  As Krista Bradford is describing the superuser access, we see the
computer screen again and the hackers are attempting to login to the same site
with the 'sync' login (so, this is apparently how they gained superuser

Later in the show (about 1 minute or so after the hackers have gained superuser
privileges) Emmanuel Goldstein (2600) states that the hackers proceeded to
create a new account.  The account they create is 'dquayle' (Dan Quayle) and
has superuser privileges.  Then, the screen focuses in on the new record in
/etc/passwd for 'dquayle', and Mr. Goldstein tells us that the new account has
no password (the screen focuses in on: "dquayle::")

Thus, anyone who has telnet access could've repeated this same process, logging
in to this site with the username 'dquayle' (and no password)
and would have gained superuser access.

It is obvious that in this situation, whoever allowed the show to be aired in
its final form had no knowledge of the Internet, otherwise this definite "how
to hack" security breach would have been omitted.

Thanks Geraldo, for showing all of us how to hack into military computers.

(Note:  I avoided sending this in for submission earlier to prevent any other
hackers from repeating the same experiment.  Hopefully, has now
had enough time to plug up the obvious hole.)

Re: Police raid wrong house -- for second time

amos shapir <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 17:39:41 +0200
[Quoted from referenced article by (David B. Benson)]
>    The officers didn't leave until Dean Krussel showed them
>Callahan's letter.  "This thing just won't go away," he said

This seems to be a Law of Nature in computer systems: Nothing ever goes away.
Many databases keep each datum as an initial entry enhanced by a set of update
records (I suspect some even run through the whole update process every time
they're rebooted).  Every now and then a system crashes, someone loads a wrong
backup tape, etc., and voila!  your magazine is being sent to an address you
have left 12 years ago, or your house is being raided by the police... :-(

Amos Shapir The Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, Dept. of Comp. Science. 972 2 585706

TRW in chaos?

Thu, 17 Oct 91 09:08:57 -0700
No darn wonder the general public thinks the techies are clueless and screwing
up the world. In OMNI's August 1991 issue, Kenneth Hey says (pg.  84):

"While human misuse of technology has reached bothersome levels [personally,
biased and twisted thinking like this article bother me a lot more], technology
can also assume a worrisome life of its own. TRW computer designers expressed
surprise when a large network of computers they created began exhibiting
'strange, unpredictable' behavior. During these periods, the system could not
perform specific tasks as requested. TRW suspected 'chaos', an uncontrollable
but natural mathematical phenomenon, which mysteriously attacks complex
computer systems. Scientists at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center conducted a
series of experiments and discovered that, indeed, large aggregates of
connected computers can exhibit unpredictably wild oscillations and unstable
behavior, generating unwanted actions in the system. The reality of computer
instability -- that is, the real potential for chaotic behavior -- has raised
professional concerns about the appropriate level of computer dependence for
military, corporate, and informational systems."

Maybe the TRW system was just busy writing this article for OMNI...nah, it
would have turned out a lot better. Anybody from TRW care to shed any light on
what this person was talking about?
Bob Colwell, Intel Corp, 5200 NE Elam Young Parkway, Hillsboro, OR 97124

Re: TRW misreports local taxes (Seecof, RISKS-12.50)

Anthony DeBoer <>
Thu, 17 Oct 1991 09:28:57 -0400
Why is it that inaccurately negative credit reporting [doesn't | shouldn't]
constitute libel under the law?  It would seem that if someone told a third
party all kinds of horrible things about me that weren't true, at a certain
point a line would be crossed and they'd be liable for damages.  What is TRW's
defense for this?

TRW Credit Reports

Steve Hollasch <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 11:00:34 PDT
    In RISKS 12.51, Rob Spray gave the procedure necessary to obtain a free
credit report from TRW (TRW recently ``decided'' to send free credit reports to
people who wish to see their file, as maintained by TRW).

    Included in the description of the procedure to obtain this report is the
following list of information that TRW needs before it will send it to you:

    - Full name
    - Spouse's first name
    - Addresses with zip codes for last five years
    - SSN
    - DOB

    It seems like catch-22 that people who are concerned about privacy are
required to send this information in order to check their records.  On thinking
about this list, though, it also becomes apparent that TRW must request some
private information to verify that the requester is authentic.

    Is it reasonable to assume that TRW already has all this information?  If
this is true, then my recent attempts to keep my SSN private seem rather
futile.  Why bother keeping something private when it is available in a public
database (albeit for sale)?  What information is available to those who
subscribe to this service?

Steve Hollasch, Kubota Pacific Computer, Inc., Santa Clara, California

Re: buggy software (RISKS-12.50) and Steinmetz

Mark R Cornwell -- Mind Tools Corp <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 13:32:26 -0400
In recent exchanges between David Parnas (12.45,50) and James Shearer (12.49)
the issue of who should assume the risk of software bugs has arisen.  Let me
say at the outset that I dislike the term "bug".  I will use the term "error".

It is not necessary to make a blanket judgement about who should assume the
risk of programming errors.  A software license can be structured so that
either the client or the vendor assumes this risk.  The decision is best left
to them.  The public then has recourse against the party who has agreed to
assume the risk.

That said, I think that it would be better for the software profession if
standard practice were that the vendor assume the risk of his programming
errors.  I know of no better way to create an incentive for vendors to provide
quality software.  If software vendors chose to be accountable for programming
errors in their products, they might be willing to try more "crackpot" ideas in
place of a process that few believe is working well.

Last night I was at a gathering of local entrepeneurs speaking with an
independent software developer.  He is president of his own corporation.  He
writes programs.  He described his work with XWindows and Motif on the latest
workstations in manufacturing.  He asked me what kind of mathematics I studied
and I started to tell him about correctness proofs of programs.  When I told
him that a program could be viewed as a function from states to states he was
fascinated.  He said he had never though of programs like that before, but the
idea appealed to him.

I felt like Steinmetz must have felt talking to an early engineer who built
electric power systems.  "You can think of the current plotted against time as
a sine wave".

"Very interesting, I'd never thought to look at it that way before."

--Mark Cornwell
                             [OK. Time to blow the whistle on this
                             subject, after the following messages... PGN]

Re: buggy software (RISKS-12.49,12.50)

Wed, 16 Oct 91 20:22:22 EDT
       In reply to my post suggesting buggy software is not a major threat to
the republic David Parnas writes in part: "We could use the "mature adult"
excuse to get rid of all of these regulations, but we would all be worse off
for doing so.  Your apartment could be destroyed because one of your "mature
adult" neighbours bought an appliance that was not properly designed.  Your
child could be injured because one of your "mature adult" neighbours bought a
car with defective brakes.  Further, every time you bought one of those
products you would have to determine its safety for yourself, whether you knew
enough to do so or not."

       And what, pray tell, terrible disaster will befall me when my neighbor
buys buggy software for his pc?  Also if Mr. Parnas believes that the
regulation of autos and electrical appliances means there is no need for a
buyer to consider their safety he is sadly mistaken.  Tens of thousands of
people are killed using autos every year.  This is somewhat more than are
killed using computer software.

       David Parnas also writes: "Those who object to the suggestion that
software products should be subject to safety requirements and that software
manufacturers should be held responsible for the results of any negligence seem
to believe that we are asking for special treatment of software.  Au contraire!
We are asking that software be treated like other products, produced by
registered or licenced engineers, and that software manufacturers be treated
like other manufacturers.  Now, because of the supposedly non-physical nature
of software, programmer's products seem to have special exemption.  If cars
were as buggy as the software on the market today, the automobile manufacturers
would have long ago been sued into bankruptcy."

       Mr. Parnas appears to have things backward.  So far as I know software
is currently treated like any other product in the uniform commercial code and
other general laws regulating commerce.  Mr. Parnas is asking that software be
subject to additional special regulation like that imposed on certain hazardous
products such as cars despite the fact that in most cases software defects pose
no equivalent direct danger.
                                        James B. Shearer

Re: buggy software (Parnas, RISKS-12.50)

Byron Rakitzis <>
Wed, 16 Oct 1991 23:47:55 -0500
Were it not for the hauteur in this posting, I would have let this go by. But
let me just state: there are a number of us who believe that the product
liability laws have gone way past any reasonable point. What used to be
governed by contract law is now covered by the law of torts in the US, with the
pervasive motif being "it's the rich guy's fault".

Please keep the hysterics to a minimum and try to assess what product liability
laws have to offer: there is some added factor of safety at a huge cost.
Witness the skyrocketing costs of medical insurance. Witness the fact that
pharmaceutical companies are most reluctant to release new products, and for
example have all but halted research on contraceptives.

Another snag is that liability is not determined by experts, it is determined
by a JURY (at least in these United States). How is a jury going to make a
reasonable decision on the alleged defectiveness of FooNix? And if some such
laws come to pass, what software developers in their right minds will market
products like FooNix?  Will we all not be somewhat the poorer for this?

No doubt the intentions of such laws are noble: to protect the ignorant (your
implication, not mine) public from being duped by unscrupulous business.
However, such protection comes at a huge cost in liberty, money and time, and
this cost should not be so callously dismissed.

self regulations for buggy software instead of gov. regs

Thu, 17 Oct 91 12:45:56 -0700
Although I believe that both Mr. Kempe (RISKS-12.51) and Mr. Parnas
(RISKS-12.50, 51) have good points, I believe Mr. Thomas (RISKS-12.50) points
out a greater risk that our profession may be painting itself into a corner.
After the recent failures of computer systems (AT&T's phone outage causing
airline travelers to be delayed, the stock market problem which I can't
remember when it happened, plane crashes, etc.) it would only take a headline
like Computer Glitch Causes Nuclear Power Plant to Meltdown, XXX People
Evacuated, State Declared Off-Limits for Next 10,000 Years, or Computer Glitch
Causes Missile Launch, XXX People Killed before the world's public would demand
a reckoning (witch-burning comes to mind).

Instead, perhaps our profession should try to become more _self_ regulating.
If we clean up our own act, _before_ the government can step in, then it will
be possible to set the regulations ourselves, instead of the *all knowing*
committees of governmental bureaucracy.  Just as doctors are mostly
self-regulating, so should the computer science field be.  For example, as Mr.
Massey suggests, the term software is used as a conglomerate of a large,
diverse genre of products.  But I feel that the computer science field itself
should break it apart and do the categorizing.  If we do not, someone else
surely will, and will probably not do it in a way that most of the rest of us

Computers now control major parts of our lives e.g. airline safety,
automobiles, medical systems, nuclear power plants, etc.  (Whether this control
is good or bad, or whether the manner in which they do the controlling and
interacting with humans is good or bad is another topic.)  They can easily do
massive damage through negligence on the part of the software, design, or
through hardware failure.  This risk of disrupting (even endangering) our lives
makes a great need for regulation as Mr. Parnas suggests.  The public has a
reasonable expectation of safety and reliability, and the only way to meet this
expectation is through some sort of standardization.

But as Mr. Kempe points out, pointing a gun at a programmer's head does NOT
produce necessarily good code.  Forcing people to do things usually ends in
failure.  The government is definitely not the body to do any regulating.  I
further agree that software engineering is an art.  The U.S. Court systems have
been treating software as books in the regards to the copyright laws.  Many
license agreements liken to their software to books. [Therefore you must treat
this software just like a _book_ with the following single exception. ... make
archival copies of the software for the sole purpose of backing-up your
software and protecting your investment from loss.]

To avoid the problem of *Big Brother* watching the programmers, and to avoid
taking the art out of the software engineering, a self-adopted code of *ethics*
can satisfy both the regulations _and_ the art.  If one feels pride in the
following of a such a code, then there is a greater chance that the person will
continue to follow this code willingly.  It becomes a matter of personal
integrity.  This system is not fool proof, e.g. how many doctors are sued in
mal-practices suits each year, but nobody quits going to the doctor because he
then believes that all doctors are quacks.

Self-adopted codes would need validation of course.  This could be provided
with a minimal intrusion by the government, making it a law to provide free bug
fixes (there's ALWAYS at least one more bug).  From there on, the economic laws
of supply and demand based on quality should enforce adherence to the
regulations.  For example, if company X develops a reputation as having very
reliable software the first time around, then people will tend to buy X's
software, just as is done in the market for other products.
                                                                Richard Hanlon

Re: buggy software

Stephen G. Smith <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 16:38:40 -0400
In RISKS DIGEST 12.51, skewes@CAD.MCC.COM (Ernesto Pacas-Skewes) writes:

>I'm just saying that registration and license like so many other
>things aren't always what they seem.

Ain't it the truth!

In particular, I see registration, licensing, etc, as being an attempt by the
companies that write software to limit their liability.  By having a "licensed
professional" sign off on their software, they hope (IMHO!) to be able to say
"This software was produced according to standard industry practice" when they
produce the next Therac-25.

Unfortunately, there is no "standard industry practice" that will provide an
assurance of good software, other than the blanket "good engineering practice".

The main causes that I've seen for bad software are management issues,
rather than technical issues.  In particular:

1.  Software always seems to be produced under *extremely* high stress.
    Only medicine and (possibly) law require high performance under
    higher stress conditions.  This is usually caused by assorted forms
    of bad scheduling.

2.  Many software managers fancy themselves as techies, despite the fact
    that they may not have ever written a line of production code.
    The urge to micromanage seems to be irresistable.

3.  Specifications (IMHO, the most important part of the project) are
    often confusing, conflicting, or incomplete.  "Formal verification"
    against a bad (English!) specification is, at best, a waste of time.

So how can we improve management?  I dunno.  Most of the outfits that I've
worked for were strictly "top-down" -- directives come down from the top and
status information goes up.  Statements from the troops like "No way can this
get done on time" tend to get lost.

Steve Smith, Agincourt Computing    (301) 681 7395

Re: Bart Massey on "Buggy Software"

Bob Wilson <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 16:21:11 CDT
Bart Massey believes you could make a case for licensing software production
for medical software, etc., for which he sees a "threat of bodily harm", but he
goes on that "it is clear that" no safety supervision is needed for computer
games or word processors because they can make no such threat. (Of course "it
is clear that" is a dangerous phrase to dangle in front of a mathematician...)

He may be right about a threat of BODILY HARM, but there are other very real
threats. RISKS has had several examples of potential harms from word
processors, to take one of his examples. Many of us surely write memos or
letters we need to go back and tone down: The original, if published, might be
dangerous at least to our economic health. We have seen here in the last
several years examples of commercial word processors which would retain in the
disk version of your document what you had deleted from the printed version, or
for that matter what might have been in a disk block unrelated to the present
document. Those contents are not hard to look at, if your employer sends
somebody in to see what you have been saying about your boss or the company.

The controversy over Prodigy and whether it was "stealing" copies of things
from your system represents a RISK in a system frequently used for game
playing. Regardless of whether Prodigy was doing it, the RISK is there for some
other communications related software to exploit.  I don't like the idea of
licensing software engineers, but I think it is too simplistic to think the
only dangerously RISKy software is that used for medical instruments, nuclear
power systems, and vehicle controls. Those make nice examples because they are
so far beyond question, but by the same token they also get more scrutiny. That
scrutiny may not be enough, but it surely doesn't mean we can ignore the RISKS
in more mundane applications.

Bob Wilson, Math Dep't, Univ. of Wisconsin

Re: buggy software (RISKS-12.51)

David Parnas <parnas@qusunt.eng.McMaster.CA>
Fri, 18 Oct 91 17:42:39 EDT
Bart Massey claims there is no risk of harm from buggy wordprocessing
software.  If that software is used to produce the manual for a dangerous
device,` and deletes important warnings, there is a risk.  I agree with Mr.
Massey's attempts to draw lines and think it is obvious that there are shades
of grey in this area, but the analysis is more difficult than it looks.

I am aware of all the weaknesses of licensing and registration raised by
Ernesto Pacas-Skewes.  I sometimes have to drive a car and observe what
licensed drivers do with their properly registered (but inadequately equipped)
cars.  Nonetheless, when given a choice, I prefer drivers who did pass a
driving examination to those who never were able to do so.

Perhaps we should stop arguing about whether some regulation is ever
needed and start to think hard about what should be regulated, how
it should be regulated, and who should do the regulation.  When we
do, I think we will find useful ideas in other fields of engineering.

Dave Parnas

Re: buggy software (Parnas, RISKS-12.51)

Thu, 17 Oct 91 19:58:31 EDT
         I suspect "variety of external pressures" means "competition", "if the
market were better controlled" means "if the competition was put out of
business" and "users were better informed about products" means "users stopped
worrying about minor factors such as cost, per- formance, timeliness and
                    James B. Shearer

re: buggy software (bart, RISKS-12.51)

David Chase <>
Thu, 17 Oct 91 17:20:54 PDT
> ... There is probably some intermediate class of
> software applications where a UL-like oversight body would be the
> appropriate answer.

This is a mere "difference of opinion", but I have certain expectations even of
games and word processors.  In particular, I expect that there are no bugs in
the program which might result in the destruction of unrelated data stored on
the same computer.  (At this point, of course, the OS vendor and the games
vendor engage in heated finger-pointing, and the customer is left grumbling.)
This is a far cry from the reliability I expect from an airplane, or an EFT
point-of-sale-terminal, but it is more than none at all, and I'd rather not
verify it for myself.  Furthermore, past experience indicates that
"verification" is difficult and time-consuming, and not something that a
customer is interested in doing.

There is the second problem of "the use of this software".  Both software and
physical devices are both put to unintended uses.  I can't think of any really
juicy software examples just this instant, but once upon a time someone I know
did use a bicycle cone wrench in place of a 70-amp slow-blow fuse (that had
                                   David Chase, Sun

Licensing Software Engineers (still more)

Christopher E Fulmer <>
Fri, 18 Oct 91 13:26:51 -0400
With all of the discussion going on about the RISKS associated with not having
a mechanism for licensing software engineers, it seems to me that we are
ignoring a few basic points.....

1.  Licensing software engineers has the effect of reducing the number of
people who are involved in software engineering.  While this can be good (In
the case of eliminating those who are incompetent), it also has the effect
of putting the decision of "Who is competent" in the hands of some governing
authority.  And, that authority may have alterior motives for making their
decisions.  The authority would have to be made up of practicing software
engineers.  (Who else is qualified to judge?),who may very well desire to
keep the field of software engineers down, by making the standards tougher,
thus increasing their own marketability.  (Dry cleaners have managed to do this
by pushing through a "Certification of Dry Cleaners" law in some states.)

2.  The market does tend to push out poorly-designed products.  However, for
some products, it may not be desirable to wait for the market to decide.  After
all, Audi's sales dropped after the problems with "Instant Acceleration" were
found by real people, not before.

3.  A mechanism which is typically used by Government and Commercial bodies is
the idea of the "Contract model," wherein certain specifications are set up,
and products which do not meet those specifications are not paid for.

So, perhaps the solution to all this is not for the government to license
softwre engineers, but to instead set up minimal specifications for safety
critical applications.  Or, perhaps, to provide for the independent licensing
of the products, and not of the people who design them.

In addition to solving the problems posed by #1 & #2 above, this also solves
problems caused by bad software written by good people.  Heck, certified
engineers make mistakes all the time.  What makes us think that programmers
are different?

So, in conclusion, It's my opinion that we're trying to solve the problem of
poor software quality by looking at the people who wrote it, instead of
looking at the produ of their work.  Poor programmers, given enough time, can
write perfectly good software, just as fantastic programmers in a rush can
write terrible software.  So, it's essential that we gauge the quality of the
work, and not the quality of those who produced it.

Chris Fulmer   

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