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 20 Issue 58

Friday 17 September 1999


o The Microsoft/NSA Crypto Brouhaha
Dan Wallach
o Hurricane Floyd stops trains in Michigan
Ed Ravin
o USA Today weather page - no reasonability check
Bob Dainauski
o Date failure on
Eric Remy
o Emergency Alert System interrupts Hurricane Announcement, and crashes
o Hacker attack on NASDAQ, AMEX, and others
Keith A Rhodes
o Hacker admits attacks on NATO, USIA Web pages
Doneel Edelson
o Indonesian Year 2000 plans
Fraser McHarg
o Yet another date-related problem
Geoff Kuenning
o Smart Dust
Steve Holzworth
o Re: The real story on Centaur/Milstar
Rick Carter
o Terrorist bombing botched due to timing error...
Joan L. Grove Brewer
o NSI blows it again---is there no lower bound to their idiocy?
Lenny Foner
o HTML on Win Desktop
Robert Graham
o E-commerce stupidity
Michael Taylor
o Re: Refrigerator gasket frozen out
Henry Spencer
o Risks of old RISKS
Ochran Industries
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

The Microsoft/NSA Crypto Brouhaha (Re: Fernandes, RISKS-19.57)

Dan Wallach <>
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 22:57:14 -0500
Andrew Fernandes of Cryptonym has publicized an interesting feature of
Microsoft's Crypto Service Provider (CSP) architecture [1].  Microsoft's
design goal appears to have been preventing "unauthorized" people from
writing their own CSP modules and dropping them into Windows (and thus
circumventing US crypto export policy).  Microsoft's architecture does this
by verifying a digital signature on the crypto module before loading it.

Microsoft included an additional public key, allegedly belonging to the NSA.
One might imagine that the NSA, which most likely has homegrown cryptography
it prefers to use, might want to distribute its own CSP to its clients
without the intervention of Microsoft.  Microsoft has said in public that
this is a "backup" key, which is also believable.

My complaint with Fernandes' analysis is his implication that this might
allow for NSA espionage or some other nefarious activity.  As I understand
it, Microsoft's architecture has no provision for some third party throwing
a new CSP module at a target host and forcing it to be installed (whether
signed by the NSA or not).  If someone truly wished to perform some kind of
espionage, they would need some other way of breaking into the target
machine, and would be more likely to install a "remote administration
service" like Back Orifice than to change out the crypto module.

Needless to say, Fernandes' message has caused a wide range of conspiracy
theorists to come out of the woodwork (for example, check out the Slashdot
discussion threads [2]).  Fernandes will claim that this feature still
"makes it easier" for the NSA to somehow attack you.  This appears to be
completely wrong.  Indeed, this feature seems to make it much easier for
parties outside the US to enhance the cryptographic strength of their system
and thus make it harder for the NSA or anyone else to attack them.

In the past two weeks, this has been discussed ad nauseum in a number of
technical forums.  The Telcom Digest has some excellent summaries of what
happened and how Microsoft's CSP architecture works [3].  NTBugTraq has a
nice article [4], and Bruce Schneier has a concise article on his page [5].

What are the RISKS and morals of the story?

- Elaborate cryptographic architectures designed to obey the US export
crypto standards may have bugs in them.  It's somehow ironic that a bug in
Microsoft's CSP architecture effectively allows anyone to install their own
CSP module, without the permission of anyone.

- Security through obscurity still doesn't work.  People will expend amazing
energies to reverse engineer code to get around any restrictions it may

- Going public with a story that sounds tasty to conspiracy theorists will
get you a lot of press ("Microsoft in bed with NSA, film at 11!"), whether
or not your arguments are technically sound.  Security researchers thus have
a responsibility to verify their claims.

And, perhaps most ironic of all, the Clinton administration has now
announced it is relaxing US crypto export restrictions [6], allowing
companies like Microsoft to effectively export anything they want, and thus
rendering the whole CSP architecture an anachronism.  The new policy doesn't
make crypto completely free of regulation (and Microsoft may yet need to
keep its CSP architecture around), but that's a topic for another RISKS

Dan Wallach, Rice University







  [Incidentally, I ran the Fernandes item in RISKS-20.57 fully aware that
  Dan's subsequent discussion was needed to complete the story, but wanted
  to provide the sequential nature of its unfolding.  PGN]

Hurricane Floyd stops trains in Michigan

Tue, 14 Sep 1999 21:00:55 -0400 (EDT)
The US passenger rail company, Amtrak, has announced service changes due to
Hurricane Floyd - as one might suspect, they are canceling trains to and
from Miami and North Carolina, but some of the changes reach much farther
than any of the hurricane's weather effects.

According to Amtrak's Web site, because some Amtrak trains are dispatched
from the CSX (US freight rail) operations center in Jacksonville, Florida (a
location where they fear the seas will rise 20 feet due to the hurricane),
they are canceling trains between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan, as
well as several other trains to and from Chicago.

The Amtrak notice is at

RISKS-8.70 mentions CSX's Jacksonville computer-assisted dispatch operation,
and how it consolidated 34 dispatch offices into one big room.

  [Sara Thigpen noted that the shutdown of commuter rail service in
  the Maryland/Washington D.C. area caused massive automobile commuter
  traffic problems, well ahead of the hurricane effects.

  Richard Heritage wondered whether CSX has any capability for decentralized
  operation.  (Apparently not.)  and also wonders what would have happened
  had the hurricane actually knocked out the Florida dispatching center.

  It has been duly noted by various folks that this centralized control
  problem might suggest a serious Y2K risk.  We are of course assured
  that "everything is under control."  

USA Today weather page - no reasonability check

Thu, 16 Sep 1999 09:05:36 -0400
With Hurricane Floyd expected to pass through here (Allentown, PA) today, I
thought I'd check the USA Today weather page for an update.  The forecast
for is for a record high:

THURSDAY: Rain is likely. The high temperature will be 577 degrees
                   Fahrenheit (303 degrees Celsius).

I saved an image of the page, which was quickly fixed.  In this instance the
error is more humorous than RISKy, but it serves as another example of a
lack of defensive design.  A deficiency which could have significantly more
serious consequences in other scenarios.

Bob Dainauski -

Date failure on

Eric Remy <>
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 17:55:20 -0400
Like many others, I use to get daily weather reports.  Today I
went to get my "Detailed local forecast" and noted that while the forecast
seemed accurate so far as I could tell by looking out the window, the date
on the forecast read April 28.  (It's currently September 16) So is the date
wrong or am I seeing the forecast for April 28?

The RISK? Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, save that as of yesterday,
I didn't know if Hurricane Floyd was going to run over my area.  I'm on the
fringe of the possible storm track and in the mountains, so I'm not
following it closely on TV.  As more people being getting news and weather
reports via the net, Web sites that provide information like this had better
be very careful to avoid lawsuits.

Eric D. Remy      Chemistry Learning Center Director, Virginia Tech     (540)-231-9016

Emergency Alert System interrupts Hurricane Announcement, and crashes

<[identity withheld by request]>
Fri, 17 Sep 1999
On Monday Sept 13th at 5PM the local news stations here in West Palm Beach,
Florida were reading the latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center
regarding Hurricane Floyd (winds 155mph) when the Emergency Alert System
activated and seconds later crashed leaving nothing but a Blue Screen on all
channels of my Comcast Cable TV System.  This Blue Screen persisted for 20
minutes or more and prevented reception of the local news which was
announcing a Hurricane Warning (upgraded from a Hurricane Watch) for the
local area.  What is worse is that the exact same thing happened just one
week prior (that time it was for a severe thunderstorm warning and lasted
for a full 60 minutes).  Comcast doesn't seems to have taken any action
other than resetting whatever equipment had malfunctioned, no attempt to
learn from this and prevent it from recurring.  The recent outage was
widespread enough for the local news anchor to mention it and clarify that
the outage was not the fault of the TV Station but rather a problem with an
unnamed Cable TV system.

The new Emergency Alert System (EAS) is supposed to be an improvement over
the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) but in this case seems to be a step
backwards in terms of reliability.

Hacker attack on NASDAQ, AMEX, and others

"Keith A Rhodes" <>
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 09:49:58 -0500
ZDNN ( reported on 16 Sep 1999 that a group
calling themselves United Loan Gunmen had altered Nasdaq and American Stock
Exchange Web sites, and claimed responsibility for earlier attacks on
C-Span, ABC, and Matt Drudge sites.  *The New York Times* (in an AP item, noted that ``The
hackers left a taunting message -- the high-tech equivalent of
spray-painting graffiti -- and also claimed to have briefly created for
itself an e-mail account on Nasdaq's computer.''  [PGN-ed]

Hacker admits attacks on NATO, USIA Web pages

"Edelson, Doneel" <>
Wed, 8 Sep 1999 08:56:18 -0400
``Zyklon'' (Eric Burns, 19) has pleaded guilty to Web site attacks on NATO,
Al Gore, and the USIA, and faces up to 5 years, a $250K fine, and
restitution.  His Web Bandit program identifies vulnerable sites.  [Source:
Reuters, 7 Sep 1999, seen on Yahoo! News; PGN-ed]

Indonesian Year 2000 plans

Mon, 13 Sep 1999 11:18:55 +1000
I admit that I haven't been able to verify this report, but if only half true
the risks are obvious...

PLN, Indonesia's national electricity board, was recently asked by an
Indonesian newspaper about its Y2K Preparedness.

The reply is a gem:

  "We can observe what happens (at midnight 1999) in Western Samoa, New
  Zealand and Australia and still have 6 hours to make plans."


Fraser McHarg from the East coast of Australia and contrary to the above report
we have two hours to make plans after observing New Zealand :-)

  Well, the RISKS archives include cases of systems such as ATMs failing in
  New Zealand and the fix being effected before midnight in England.
  HOWEVER, the complexity of fixing dynamically detected Y2K bugs may be
  different from some of the previous clock problems.  PGN]

Yet another date-related problem

Geoff Kuenning <>
Mon, 13 Sep 1999 23:52:30 -0700
I was working on a new script last night, and stopped to consider how many
output columns would be occupied by a Unix timestamp in the semi-standard
decimal representation.  Nine digits, right?  Always has been, always will
be... NOT!

The Unix timestamp first hit 9 decimal digits on March 3, 1973, and it has
been inexorably incrementing ever since.  A quick check with my time
conversion program tells me that at precisely 01:46:40 UTC on Sunday,
September 9, 2001, it will need that 10th digit.

This is a much smaller problem than most other date bugs, of course.  But I
have to suspect that there are a few programs out there that will break, at
least to the extent of causing an 80-character output line to wrap to 81.

Geoff Kuenning

Smart Dust

Steve Holzworth <>
Wed, 8 Sep 1999 15:05:48 -0400
From *New Scientist*:

"CLEANLINESS FREAKS have a new rationale for their pathological hatred of
dust--it could soon be spying on them.

Packed full of sensors, lasers and communications transceivers, particles of
"smart dust" are being designed to communicate with one another. They could
be used for a range of applications from weather monitoring to spying. "


Steve Holzworth <>  Senior Systems Developer
SAS Institute - Open Systems R&D VMS/MAC/UNIX  Cary, N.C.

Re: The real story on Centaur/Milstar (Ladkin, RISKS-20.57)

Rick Carter <>
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 13:09:54 -0400 (EDT)
There was a third example that comes to mind here.  I clearly remember that,
probably in the mid 1980s, a shuttle experiment's data was invalidated
because of a mixup in a parameter [...]

Rick Carter, System Administrator, Physics Dept., University of Michigan

  [I think Rick is referring to the experiment on Discovery (before we
  began the on-line RISKS, documented in my Risks section of ACM Software
  Engineering Notes vol 10 no 3, July 1985, and in my Computer-Related Risks
  book) in which the input "+10,023" for the elevation of a mirror for a
  laser experiment was interpreted as miles, not feet, resulting in the
  laser beam being aimed upward (to a point 10,023 miles above sea-level)
  rather than downward (to a point 10,023 feet above sea-level, at the top
  of Mona Kea in Hawaii.  PGN]

Terrorist bombing botched due to timing error...

"Joan L. Grove Brewer -- Mnemosyne" <>
Sat, 11 Sep 1999 12:52:20 -0700
Last week, Israeli time -- which is not on our western Daylight Savings Time
-- fell back.  Due to the lack of synchronization between the time in Israel
and Palestine, which is on Daylight Savings Time, a car bomb went off in
Haifa one hour earlier than expected, killing the bomber who was still in
the car.  Israel sets their clocks to coincide with Yom Kippur... :-)

Did time run out for terrorist bombers?

See Barbara Demick, Knight Ridder Newspapers

Joan L. Brewer -- A Muse <>
Issaquah, WA 98027

NSI blows it again---is there no lower bound to their idiocy?

Lenny Foner <>
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 15:27:04 -0400 (EDT)
Network Solutions just spammed (apparently) its entire customer base with a
message that guarantees we'll see a lot of forged mail originating from
them.  (The message came from, interestingly enough, but claims
to be from NSI---thought WHOIS claims that the admin and
billing contacts are ""!)

Parts (a) and (b) of the message said, basically, "you now have to pay in
advance for a new domain registration" and "we've added you without warning
to a global directory".  (Big deal---that was already available via NIC
WHOIS, although I haven't checked the directory to see if it's more
searchable and thus more subject to abuse.)  [The message is also amazingly
poorly formatted, but hey, I guess NSI can't be bothered to follow generally
accepted practices for sending mail that are documented in RFC's...]

But part (c) said [formatting fixed]

    3. Lastly, we are pleased to offer you a FREE e-mail account using our
    new dot com now mail service. Because it's Web-based, you can use it
    in the office, at home or on the road. You'll need the following
    information to set up your account:
     <><><><><><>Login name:  XXXXXXXX
     <><><><><><>Password:    XXXXXXXXnsi

    Please visit to review all the
    features of dot com now mail and set up your account.

Apparently, -everyone- got the -same- sort of password, making it totally
trivial to crack.  I've replaced the ID with X's above, but it's a -totally-
trivial thing to guess.  (Nor do they say which of my various domain names
it's supposed to be associated with, incidentally.)

This is also being discussed on slashdot.

-And-, to add insult to injury, -of course- their server is now completely
overwhelmed and is timing out on all queries, which means I cannot -change-
my password.  I'm hoping that I'll be able to change my password before this
issue of Risks goes out---even disguising the "foner3" part of the username
above won't help much, since it's trivially guessable and is presumably
similarly guessable for everyone -else's- accounts...

P.S.  You can call NSI's toll-free number at 888/642-9675.  I spent 10
minutes on hold with them, finally got an answer, and said, "Hi there.  I
just got spam from NSI indicating you'd created an account for me without
asking me and I need to you to change the password immediately."  They hung
up on me after the word "spam".  I tried again, was told "only our tech
people can do this", was left on hold for 15 minutes, and then was dropped.

P.P.S.  Having -finally- gotten through to the URL mentioned in the spam,
I've now spent 10+ minutes trying to figure out -how- to actually log in and
change my password.  Still no luck.  Anyone have any clues?

  [Also commented on by Marcus Ranum, David Rochberg, Ben Cantrick,
  Karl Reinsch, Merlyn Kline, T Byfield, and maybe others.  PGN]

HTML on Win Desktop

"Robert Graham" <>
Sat, 11 Sep 1999 17:30:03 -0700
HTTP has a feature where it indicates the "Referer", which is the page
somebody followed to get to your document. RISKS of this field have been
well documented in the past. Here is a new variant.

I peruse my Web server logs occasionally. I found this particular "Referer"

From this, I know:

1. the user name is "lattimm". Discovering the user name is a frequent
first-step in a hacker attack against a machine.

2. On that machine, Windows NT is installed in D:\WINNT. There are many
Web-browser attacks that require knowing the exact filename, which is why
many people (like me) choose to install in a directory other than c:\winnt
or c:\windows.


Don't save HTML files to your desktop. Of course, you could always turn off
the "Referer" field as well through an add-on product.

Robert Graham, CTO, Network ICE

E-commerce stupidity

Michael Taylor <>
Wed, 8 Sep 1999 17:34:50 -0300 (ADT)
I recently worked on setting up an e-commerce payment system for my business
and was surprised with the nonperformance of the "shopping cart" software
which I had bought from a local e-commerce "solution provider."  While
configuring and test the site during my setup I had no problems with it, but
after I opened the storefront I had reports that customers were unable to
buy anything, not a good thing. It turns out that this "shopping cart" had
violated the URI specs and while older browsers accepted this, the current
versions of Communicator and IE did not. This is a simple demonstration of
the classic risk of caveat emptor, it also demonstrates how "sloppy" Web
design might be acceptable to current versions of the most popular Web
browsers, that does not test whether a site is correct (as per HTTP, URI,
HTML specifications). Of the professional Web site designers I have contact
with, only one occasionally uses a HTML verifier while the rest just check
the display of generically configured Communicator and IE browsers.

Since I am involved in e-commerce, a colleague forwarded me a strange e-mail
recently. It was a bounce message from the back-end of an order processing
system for a large multinational company who had their "orders" mailbox (or
related drive) fill up. In original e-mail, and still in the bounced message
sent to the customer, was an unencrypted copy of all the order information
including all his credit card information. The risks are obvious, an e-mail
message which was expect to remain within a "trusted" LAN did not due to a
simple and common failure of e-mail delivery. It is not clear how many
administrators at the company and his ISP may have also received unencrypted
copies of his credit card information.

Michael Taylor  Arles Trading Company
Linux / BSD software retailer

Re: Refrigerator gasket frozen out (Lee, RISKS-20.54)

Henry Spencer <>
Wed, 15 Sep 1999 16:45:33 -0400 (EDT)
> ... it had to go surface because it was regarded as hazardous cargo.
> I assume that is because it is essentially one big magnet ...

Modern planes generally do still have magnetic compasses, as emergency
backups for the more sophisticated hardware.

On the other hand, the classification of magnets as hazardous cargo goes
back a long time, to the days of much smaller aircraft and much less
sophisticated equipment, when cargo was physically closer to the flight deck
and magnetic compasses got more use.

On the third hand :-), that sort of aircraft is still in use in a lot of the
world's backwaters, and there is considerable advantage in having uniform
hazardous-materials rules, even if that does mean worst-case rules which are
a bit stricter than necessary in specific situations.

Henry Spencer <> or <>

Risks of old RISKS

Ochran Industries <>
Fri, 17 Sep 1999 23:03:51 +1000 (EST)
I came across comp.risks, and decided I wanted to read the previous issues,
so, starting at volume 1, issue 1, I began reading, using Lindsay Marshall's
wonderful archive (and have noticed that the more the world changes, the
risks stay the same!).

I used the gzipped (.gz) version of the original posting, rather than
the more flashier Web versions, for various reasons.

Until I came to volume 5. Requesting issue one from the archive page, I got
the response: No such issue. Strange. So I tried issue 2, and got the same
result. Requested issue 56 - and still got the dreaded "No such issue". So I
sent an e-mail off to Lindsay, and waited. And waited and waited. So I
thought that he had seen my e-mail, and ignored it. Which turned out to be
very, very wrong, on my part.

It turns out that Volume 5 wasn't there due to a disk corruption
issue. *But*, Lindsay was on holiday, and thus, could never have read my
e-mail. So while I was sitting here, and reading the html versions, and
wondering why the problem wasn't getting fixed, Lindsay was totally unaware
of the problem.

The Risks

1. Archives get corrupted. They 'loose' files. And you normally don't need
to worry, until some stranger comes along and finds that bits are missing,
or things are not as they should be. Or worse, *you* need the archives, and
find bits missing.

2. Just because you sent that e-mail, don't expect that the person on the
other end got it. You may have typed the address wrong (easily checked). It
may have been munched by the maw of the 'net, and gone that place in the
universe where all e-mails are finally united with their brethren (I don't
know how common this is, but I assume not very). Or, the person on the other
end may just not be there. They may be taking a well earned rest from the
plagues of e-mail they get every day (which turned out to be true). They may
not care, and the request may be one which should never been sent in the
first place. And, they may be dead, or missing, and the news just hasn't got
to you yet.

So how does this story end? Lindsay returned from his holiday, read my
e-mail, and fixed it but good. I came across another missing issue, 12.72,
and as soon as it was reported, it was fixed. I'd like to thank you Lindsay,
for the wonderful job you have been doing, and PGN for such an excellent job
as moderator, guide, and mover. May both your risks ever be insignificant
for the rest of all time.

That was a while ago, and had been reading further, when I came across
17.83, in which PGN mention he had fixed a typo. Leaving out the uneasiness
which came over me at what amounts to revisionism in my books, the typo had
not been fixed in the version I read, as Lindsay archives posts direct from
usenet, not from the archive at SRI.


1. Having multiple, independent archiving sites is great, unless you change
something in one archive, and forget about the others.

2. Changing something in an *archive* copy. As the name suggests, these
represent things *as-they-were*, not as-they-should-have-been.  There is no
need to change things in earlier versions, as a note in the current version
("post x in volume y issue z got 'c' wrong, as it is supposed to be
'd'). Perhaps a pointer to issue z+1 in issue z is okay, as long as it is
clear it is an addition, and clearly visible as such, but altering archived
versions of *anything* is skating on thin ice.

westyX   -

  [Don't forget, Lindsay's Newcastle archive is a beautiful mirror of
  the much simpler SRI archive at (cd risks) that merely
  gives the raw issues.  I certainly believe in redundancy!

  On those rare occasions when I make in the SRI archive, I identify the
  change, and almost always remember to let Lindsay known.  I think putting
  in an occasional N+1 pointer that something will be corrected in the
  next issue is a very sound practice, because otherwise erroneous stuff
  tends to propagate without correction.

  And I too thank Lindsay repeatedly for the wonderful job he is doing.
  I even had a chance to see him in person when I was in Newcastle
  last week!  PGN]

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