[Thanks to Gene Spafford for spotting this one.] November 2006 Election Day problems in Denver were attributed to flawed ePollBook software from Sequoia Voting Systems ("decidedly subprofessional architecture and construction"). A consultants' report said "The ePollBook is a poorly designed and fundamentally flawed application that demonstrates little familiarity with basic tenets of Web development." Local election officials were also slammed for their "casual approach" to important technology. Source: Todd Weiss, *ComputerWorld*, 13 Dec 2006 http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9006038
One of the quotes in my signature collection reads: "Every new technology carries with it an opportunity to invent a new crime." That was Laurence Urgenson (an assistant chief US attorney), speaking in 1987 about the first arrests for what was later called cellphone cloning. Well, here's another example of criminal technological improvisation: electric shock weapons, like a Taser, produced by teenagers from disposable digital cameras! http://www.cbc.ca/canada/edmonton/story/2006/12/12/teens-cameras.html Mark Brader, Toronto, firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2003 Greece, in response to new international requirements for secure travel documents, revised the application process and contents of its passports. From January 1st 2006 passports are no longer issued by the prefectures, but by the police, and from August 26th passports include an RFID chip. The new process has been fraught with problems; many of these difficulties stem from the IT system used for issuing the passports. On December 12th, the Greek Ombudsman (human rights section) issued a special 22-page report on the problems of the new passport issuing process. The report is based on 43 official citizen complaints. In the report's introduction the Ombudsman stresses the sinister symbolism of transferring the authority for issuing passports to the police - a body organized under quasi-military principles: international travel has nowadays become mainly a security issue. The Ombudsman details many procedural problems of the new process. At least three of them appear to be related to the new IT system handling the passport application. 1. The system used can't handle the correct entry of some names, apparently because it doesn't support some characters or symbols, like the hyphen. 2. If a passport application is rejected, and the citizen subsequently appeals successfully against that decision, the IT system doesn't offer a way to resubmit the original application; a new application has to be completed and submitted. 3. The passport IT system appears to have been linked against databases containing the details of wanted persons, such as fugitives and those with pending penalties. Thus persons appearing in the wanted person database get arrested when they go to a police station to apply for a passport. According to the Ombudsman, this is problematic for two reasons. First, the data in the wanted person file may be wrong. Second, through this procedure the police performs a blanket screening of all citizens that wish to exercise their right to travel outside the country. Paradoxically, one other database, that listing persons actually prohibited to leave the country, is not consulted when the application is filed. In sum the Ombudsman finds that the new system of issuing passports emphasizes the security of the travel documents at the expense of citizens' rights, decent governance, and efficiency. The report also contains recommendations for minimizing the effects of the current seasonal rush, which has resulted in queues forming at 3:30 in the morning. The Ombudsman recommends a system for setting up appointments by phone and the addition of seasonal staff. However, an obvious way of streamlining the process is overlooked. Currently citizens fill-in data entry application forms. Police officers then enter the details from the forms into the IT system; typically at a snail's pace, because most of them can't touch-type. The whole process can easily last 15-20 minutes for a single application. Allowing the citizens to complete the forms on-line, would allow the police officers to print the forms from a reference number supplied by the applicant, and have them signed in person. This would speed up many of the applications and would also eliminate transcription errors. Diomidis Spinellis - Athens University of Economics and Business http://www.dmst.aueb.gr/dds
[Thanks to Marc Rotenberg for this one.] Malaysia to embed car license plates with microchips to combat theft The Associated Press, 8 Dec 2006 http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/12/09/asia/AS_GEN_Malaysia_Car_Thefts.php Malaysia's government, hoping to thwart car thieves, will embed license plates with microchips containing information about the vehicle and its owner, a news report said Saturday. With the chips in use, officials can scan cars at roadblocks and identify stolen vehicles, the *New Straits Times* reported. The "e-plate" chip system is the latest strategy to prevent car thieves from getting away with their crimes by merely changing the plates, the report said. (Nearly 30 cars — mostly luxury vehicles -- are stolen every day in Malaysia.) ... The microchips, using radio frequency identification technology, will be fixed into the number plates and can transmit data at a range of up to 100 meters (yards), and will have a battery life of 10 years.
*Wired News* senior editor Kevin Poulsen announced on his blog last Thursday that with announcements from UCLA (800,000 records stolen), Aetna (130,000 records stolen) and Boeing (320,000 records stolen), over 100 million records had been stolen since the ChoicePoint breach almost two years ago. While perpetrators of the Aetna and Boeing laptop thefts were probably not after personal records, the same cannot be said for the UCLA data theft, where a hacker had been accessing the university's database of personal information for over a year before being discovered. A Public Policy Institute study, using data from the Identity Theft Resource Center, showed that of the 90 million records stolen between 1 Jan 2005, and 26 Mar 2006, 43 percent were at educational institutions. ...
I just published a book called 'Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet.' (Details at http://hybridvigor.org/intervention.) It focuses on the flaws in risk assessment methods for innovations in science and technology, specifically the scientific uncertainties that biotech risk evaluations dismiss or ignore. While a lot of the issues are pretty much straight-up biology and public-policy atrocities, there are several technical foibles in the brave new world of industrial genomics that are in serious need of some attention. I ended up cutting most of them out of the book because of excessive nerditude from the layperson's perspective, but I thought RISKS folk might find them interesting. 1. 95 percent of the gene-disease links that make headlines every time they're reported (i.e., the gene for diabetes, Alzheimer's, obesity, schizophrenia, depression, and many others) are false positives, attributed to the speed and efficiency with which new equipment can automatically sequence and analyze genes. Since "reading" genes can take about a day now instead of several months, thousands of them at a time can be scanned quickly. But because the sequences are analyzed in bulk and quickly, some of them by chance alone seem linked to a disease in a statistically significant way even though they aren't. 2. There are no standards for PCR equipment, the machines that can synthetically "amplify" or reproduce a single DNA sequence into a few bazillion identical sequences. It's so key to research that it's been called the "duct tape" of genomics. Virtually every genetics experiment uses PCR. But PCR is ultrahypersensitive, a situation that's exacerbated by way the equipment itself performs. It's not just that results of DNA measurements from experiments performed on different PCR platforms are not necessarily comparable. One NIST staffer says that results may not be repeatable *even with the same equipment.* 3. For another lab workhorse, the "gene chip," the problem seems simply to be that it isn't sensitive enough. Gene chips are based on a different, far less sensitive technology than PCR called hybridization. Hybridization is like having 20-20 tunnel vision — it does great within its limited range, but it can detect absolutely nothing outside it. What gene chips can produce is a false negative result. False negatives in other kinds of tests would indicate that test subjects don't have HIV, when they do. Or that anthrax DNA isn't present on the envelope in the Senate mailroom, when in fact it is. In the context of risk and in the most obvious example — genetic contamination — the ability to detect a specific DNA or RNA sequence, or to be able to notice that a certain gene is not being expressed, would be a key element in determining whether or not there's cause for alarm. With so many different points in the scientific process where the tools themselves can introduce fundamental errors in the data, it doesn't seem out of the question to ask what research results might be overlooking, mistaking for something else, or simply not seeing at all. I'd like to see this whole area broken wide open. In my opinion, we are messing around with the fundamental building blocks of living organisms using tools that look very sophisticated, but seem to me more like the equivalent of a spelunker's lamp and a pick and shovel. Denise Caruso, Executive Director, The Hybrid Vigor Institute http://hybridvigor.org Blog: http://hybridvigor.net [We have long been concerned here with the risks of overendowing risk assessment techniques — and especially quantitative approaches — along with the risks of misusing the results of such analyses. Although Denise's book might seem to be less computer related than many other topics discussed in RISKS, I think there are many problems and lessons to be learned from what we have in common. It is important for everyone to see that these problems are generic and relevant to essentially all technologies, not just computer systems. PGN]
The commentary on this item so far has been quite interesting and I believe does address a key reason for why so many public projects fail. Unfortunately, here in the UK at least and I suspect elsewhere as well, there are serious problems with public projects using incremental development. The UK OGC (Office of Government Commerce) has been promoting "stronger" contracts between government and suppliers. These have now become quite onerous and they create a situation where the whole project is managed in a legalistic way. This results in both sides focusing very strongly on the original requirements as specified at time of contract. The incorporation of changes is seen by both sides as an opportunity for the supplier to make some real money and as such is subject to a rigorous and expensive change management procedure. The overall effect is to act as a brake on any change preventing all but the most important changes taking place. The end result is all too easy to predict and the trend is in completely the opposite direction to those being suggested. The only way out of this mess is for government and their suppliers to find a more cooperative model for operating these projects. I strongly believe incremental development is the way to go and it would be sensible for suppliers to use it but in all too many cases there is insufficient flexibility in the requirements. The suppliers best interests are served by doing what they agreed to do rather than something that will work. Even where a supplier is willing to be helpful the purchasing body will often make the administrative cost of supplier suggested changes so high that none are suggested.
Management needs to learn more about projects so they don't fall into that trap. They can't get and don't need a price, and if they believe in one that they are given, then they should immediately resign as they have already demonstrated their incompetence. All they need to know is that the initial budget is affordable and that the initial steps of the project will probably deliver results whose value is likely to exceed the costs. There is certainly some attraction to the notion that the whole project can be understood and guaranteed before any budget is allocated, but it is completely obvious that such notions are unrealistic and misleading. Management needs to manage, not only at the start of the project, but at many other times before the project completion date is reached. > Management needs a date, up front, to know if the product will hit the > market window. We can waffle and promise to deliver a range of dates and > costs, or we can protest mightily that such expectations are unreasonable. I protest mightily. Even if they get a date, they cannot realistically believe it. Even if they could believe it, they cannot be assured that the market window will appear at the scheduled time. Fixing the product definition, cost, and timing all in advance of the beginning of the project is manifest foolishness. Give engineering a chance to work, a chance to trade off one detail against another to maximize the value delivered to stakeholders. This does make the resulting product less clear at the start of the project, but it IS less clear than the advocates would have you believe. This is to say, the reality is more unknowable than the advocates aver. Skepticism is a required feature of good management practices. When a proposal claims that a two or three year project can be accurately and adequately defined and implemented with a knowable budget and that the result will have a knowable value when it is delivered, years in the future, the only proper management response is to laugh that proposal out of the room. > Yet if the project is late, so there's no revenue being generated, and as > a result our paycheck is a dollar short or a day late, we go ballistic. If that were the only reason for no revenue being generated, this world would be very much easier to understand and deal with. In fact the major reason that no revenue is generated is that the project designers did not plan for any revenue to be generated until the project is completed and all the money spent. Many projects are not intended to produce a product to be marketed and then ignored. In these cases, usable deliveries of improvements can generate revenue, or value, long, long before the completion of the entire project. Neglecting this fact is failing to accomplish the due diligence aspect of management. I suspect that many customers who recognize the need for a product to accomplish X will be only too happy to PAY for a product which does only a portion of the whole task, if it will be improved monthly or quarterly as guided by customer feedback. This notion needs some testing and validation, but several recent works stress the value of carrying on a two way conversation with your customers. See "The Clue Train Manifesto" for example. > Alas, I fear this conundrum will never be resolved. Probably true, but that does not mean it cannot be addressed and managed to accomplish substantial improvements in project management and substantial reduction of the risks involved. Such gains require non-traditional approaches but they do not require silver bullets or magic or slavish adherence to some particular method. They only require open minds, brave hearts, skepticism, and common sense. Would we had more of those. Richard Karpinski, 148 Sequoia Circle, Santa Rosa, CA 95401 email@example.com +1 707-546-6760 "nitpicker" in subject line gets past my spam filters.
> In Fall, in areas with deciduous trees, a slippery film deriving > from mulched fallen leaves can build up on rails. More than this, it is a mulch that develops on the wheels themselves that make them slip. The problem appeared in the UK on most new trains which had "new" (at the time) breaking systems consisting of disc brakes, or pads rubbing the *side* of the wheel. British Rail engineers found that the problem was less likely on older trains where the brake pads would be applied to the rolling surface of the wheel itself (the circumference), thus scrubbing the rolling surface clean of all the mulch every time the brakes were applied. Definitely a case where new technology is introducing new problems. Olivier MJ Crepin-Leblond, Ph.D. <firstname.lastname@example.org> Tel:+44 (0)7956 84 1113 [This leaves mulch to be desired. PGN]
Martin Ewing wrote of a VAX floating point unit that exhibited intermittent faults (RISKS-24.51 <http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/24.51.html>). Computers' arithmetic-logic units ((ALUs) don't seem well protected against intermittent faults. In the early 1970s I worked with a Burroughs B6700 computer that occasionally, when compiling a copy of its operating system, failed the computation with a spurious fault. (The core operating system was written in an Algol dialect and took about 20 minutes to compile.) After much investigation we found that the cause was an occasional bit dropped by the RDIV operator (which calculated the remainder from an integer division). This rarely used operator was used by the operating system in calculating disk segment addresses in the computer's virtual memory paging file. When a bit was dropped in the segment address, the compiler would be fed a chunk of garbage from the wrong page file segment and flag a syntax error. After some detective work I wrote a program that did repeated RDIVs and checked the results, highlighting the problem. The fault was rare, less than once in 1000. Had the problem occurred with a more commonly used operator the result could have been nasty. Perhaps ironically this was one of the first B6700s that was delivered with main memory that included Hamming code single bit error correction and double bit error detection. But nothing detected a faulty ALU. Mike Martin email@example.com Sydney
I used to work at Quintus, who then made a Prolog compiler. We were keen to get our product in the catalogues of various computer vendors. One such vendor had a policy of thoroughly testing programs before accepting them into their catalogue. So one fine day a bug report from them landed on my desk: such-and-such a trig function was delivering answers that were slightly off. That's odd, I thought: I wrote that code and it just calls their code through the foreign interface, I wonder what happens if I call that from C? You guessed it: the bug was in their code. They were testing other people's code much more thoroughly than their own.
Mark Ewing: > Eventually we found that our > VAX floating point unit (a very large circuit board) was malfunctioning. It > gave slightly wrong results, but quietly - there were no system error > reports. The diagnostic was that sin**2 + cos**2 was intermittently not > quite equal to 1 for various arguments. [NOTE: This is a positive example > of circular reasoning! PGN] Indeed. Even with an optimal implementation of sin and cos it is not necessarily the case that sin**2 + cos**2 equals 1. It is likely, but not necessary. Consider an angle of 45 degrees. In IEEE single precision the best approximation to sqrt(2)/2 is (in binary): 0.101101010000010011110010 the square of that is (with proper rounding): 0.100000000000000000000001 not really equal to 1/2, and I think that similar examples can be created using radian arguments. This one also does not work in IEEE double precision. (And if you want to check with a program, be sure that after each individual operation the result is rounded to the precision you operate with and that you do use that rounded result. Otherwise you will see discussions I have had already a long time ago about another problem with floating-point arithmetic.) There is a lot of relevance here. Assuming that mathematical relations also hold when doing floating-point arithmetic on computers can lead to errors. There is a whole field of mathematics devoted to just this (numerical mathematics). > Field service got us new boards, but how could we have confidence this bug > was not recurring? In the end we ran a background routine that checked > sin**2 + cos**2 forever. (Today, we would make it a screensaver program.) I do not think you checked for the whole range, otherwise you would have found errors forever. > There is a RISKS issue — how do you know your CPU is giving good results? > There aren't any check bits for trig functions. Trust. Already quite some time ago (1970?) Cody and Waite wrote a book that contained programs that would check the basic elementary functions. There also does exist an elementary program that checks the basic arithmetic of computers (from memory, "elefun" by Kahan). But even these did not help with the Pentium bug. And, of course, some basic knowledge about numerical mathematics. dik t. winter, cwi, kruislaan 413, 1098 sj amsterdam, nederland, +31205924131 home: bovenover 215, 1025 jn amsterdam, nederland; http://www.cwi.nl/~dik/
Of course, an incorrect cos(x) could have been computed from an incorrect sin(x) as _______________ / 2 V 1 - [sin(x)] in which case the sum of the squares would be IDENTICALLY 1, modulo roundoff errors. So that check is NOT ENOUGH. [Incidentally, I put a correction to Martin's note in RISKS-24.51, changing "1990s" to "1980s" on the date of the VAX episode. PGN]
Call for Papers 2007 USENIX Annual Technical Conference June 17-22, 2006, Santa Clara, CA Paper Submissions Deadline: January 9, 2007 http://www.usenix.org/usenix07/cfpa/ On behalf of the 2007 USENIX Annual Technical Conference program committee, we request your ideas, proposals, and papers for tutorials, refereed papers, and a poster session. The program committee invites you to submit original and innovative papers to the Refereed Papers Track of the 2007 USENIX Annual Technical Conference. Authors are required to submit full papers by 11:59 p.m. PST, Tuesday, January 9, 2007. We seek high-quality submissions that further the knowledge and understanding of modern computing systems, with an emphasis on practical implementations and experimental results. We encourage papers that break new ground or present insightful results based on experience with computer systems. The USENIX conference has a broad scope. Specific topics of interest include but are not limited to: * Architectural interaction * Benchmarking * Deployment experience * Distributed and parallel systems * Embedded systems * Energy/power management * File and storage systems * Networking and network services * Operating systems * Reliability, availability, and scalability * Security, privacy, and trust * System and network management * Usage studies and workload characterization * Virtualization * Web technology * Wireless and mobile systems More information on these and other submission guidelines is available on our Web site: http://www.usenix.org/usenix07/cfpa/ IMPORTANT DATES: Paper submissions due: Tuesday, January 9, 2007, 11:59 p.m. PST Notification to authors: Monday, March 19, 2007 Final papers due: Tuesday, April 24, 2007 Please note that January 9 is a hard deadline; no extensions will be given. We look forward to your submissions. On behalf of the Annual Tech '07 Conference Organizers, Jeff Chase, Duke University Srinivasan Seshan, Carnegie Mellon University 2007 USENIX Annual Technical Conference Program Co-Chairs firstname.lastname@example.org
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