The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief has said written that the anticipated failure of QuikScat ("an aging weather satellite crucial to accurate predictions on the intensity and path of hurricanes", launched in 1999 and designed to last only a few years) could add uncertainty to forecasts and broaden the areas over which hurricane warnings and watches would have to be invoked. (The estimated cost of evacuations is about $1 million per mile of coastline.) Accuracy of predictions has doubled in the past 15 years, but would be set back by delays and lack of funding for the desired replacement -- which might require four years and $400 million. (QuikScat suffered a transmitter failure in 2006, and has been using a backup transmitter.) Source: Jessica Gresko, AP item, seen in the *San Francisco Chronicle*, 14 Jun 2007, A17; PGN-ed]
After the failure of the computer control systems in the Russian part of the International Space Station and the subsequent inability of the Russian computers to work with the American computers, control was reportedly passed to maneuvering jets on the Atlantis shuttle. The Space Station solar panel configuration was unable to generate enough power, and certain functions had to be shut down manually -- which caused the software to trigger a fire alarm in the Russian part of the Space Station. It took twenty minutes to diagnose that it was a false alarm, and that there was no fire. [Source: John Schwartz, *The New York Times*, 13 Jun 2007; PGN-ed]
Voting over the Internet is a topic that has often appeared in RISKS: in general (RISKS-21.15 and many more issues), and particularly relating to the U.S. (SERVE), the Netherlands, the Philippines, Switzerland, and so on. Today's NYTimes article notes that the U.S. DoD has expended over $30 million seeking to enable U.S. military and civilians to vote dependably, with no viable solution yet in hand. The article notes that the existing Web-based system is slow and confusing, with many security and privacy problems. It was used by only 63 military voters in the November 2006 election. Civilians are not able to use it. Absence of standards among different states is problematic. Many overseas voters have been unable to cast votes. [Source: Ian Urbina, New York Times, 13 Jun 2007; PGN-ed] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/13/washington/13overseas.html [As noted in previous RISKS issues, voting by Internet is inherently riskful, particularly with respect to voter coercion, vote selling, tampering, denials of service, and other problems. PGN]
Since the 28 Mar 2007 filing that listed over a dozen lawsuits, the TJX Cos. Inc. now faces nine more federal lawsuits in five additional states over the data theft that exposed at least 45 million credit and debit cards to potential fraud. Fifth Third Bancorp is also named. [Source: Mark Jewell, Associated Press, 8 Jun 2007; PGN-ed] http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/business/x1289425994
Daylight savings time produced some annoyances earlier this year, but on 1 Apr 2007 it produced some unexpected personal inconveniences. My hotel's wake-up call system malfunctioned because it "double counted" daylight savings time. I suspect that the hotel manually pushed time forward earlier in the year, but forgot to disable the automated daylight savings time event that previously took place on the first Sunday in April at 2AM. That would be April Fool's Day 2007. My wake-up call was set to 4:30AM, but actually rang at 3:30AM. After attempting to re-set the wake-up call for 4:30AM (which, of course, was futile since it would ring the next day), I slept through my flight home and had to buy a new ticket. The daylight savings deja vu added a redeye to my travel, and my lecture the next morning was probably quite loopy. Anyhow, I'm surprised there was not much discussion on what would happen on the historical day of daylight savings. Most discussion focused on what would happen on the new day of daylight savings. That's simple: People manually set their clocks trying to outsmart software. There will probably be similar "double daylight" problems in the Fall on the historical dates for daylight savings for years to come. The "smart" wall clocks in the hotel's fitness center also set themselves forward twice, now an hour ahead of correct time. Pictures on http://kevinfu.blogspot.com/. Can you guess the hotel? Kevin Fu, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of Massachusetts Amherst 1-413-545-4006 http://www.cs.umass.edu/~kevinfu/ [Ah, yes, recall Caltrain's double daylight time (RISKS-24.63). PGN]
Yesterday, while working at home, I received a visit from someone purporting to be from my local council, and he had an ID badge to prove it. He also had a copy of a letter which I should have received, and a fairly comprehensive survey form for the activity he wished me to participate in. In brief, it was a survey of "Housing Conditions", based on a randomly selected number of houses, and intended to allow the council to extrapolate the overall condition of the houses in their area for grant funding planning purposes. All fine so far, but now onto the questionnaire that goes with the survey... As well as the obvious stuff about the condition of the property, there was also an extensive "Socio-Economic" section. This attempted to determine the net worth of the individuals in the property, as well as original cost, value of contents etc. This was worrying enough in itself, but the final straw was in a section they called "Health and Safety", which included an item called "3rd Party Intrusion Risk". This was basically a breakdown of how easy (and therefore likely) it was to break in to the building, and details of any specific weaknesses. At this point alarm bells were ringing loudly and I started to question who would have access to this data. I was given the usual platitudes: "The data won't be linked to any specific building." (So why is the address written on the front of the form?) "Only this department will use the data and only for a specific planning purpose." (At this point it turned out he doesn't work for the council at all, but is working for a firm sub-contracted to do this work nationwide. Who've just been bought.) "All staff are vetted." (Don't get me started on local government vetting. Oh, but wait, he now works for company B, who bought company A, who does the work for the council, so couldn't even tell me who the staff were or where the data entry team were based). "Nobody but us would understand it." (Errr... Yeah, right.) "The intrusion risk questions are to do with mental health." (??? Apart from being utterly confusing, that's also utterly irrelevant. Mr. Burglar is not going to care *why* you collated this useful tidbit for him, only that you did!) etc. I think the risks of collating a database of houses, the wealth of the owner, the value of the contents and a handy scale of difficulty of entry complete with tips on where to look are manifest, particularly given the ongoing revelations about "data loss" from similar organisations... I, for one, declined to participate. :) Adam Laurie, The Bunker Secure Hosting Ltd., Ash Radar Station, Marshborough Road, Sandwich, Kent CT13 0PL, UNITED KINGDOM +44 (0) 1304 814800 [This may sound familiar, but is certainly worth a RISKS warning. I am reminded of a would-be burglar-alarm company that operated for a while in Watchung NJ (near Bell Labs), giving free detailed house security assessments and alarm-system estimates. Somewhat later, the most opportune of those homes that did NOT subscribe to the alarm system were burgled, within a short period of time, after which the perpetrators vanished. PGN]
A Michigan man who was caught using a coffee shop's unsecured WiFi connection while sitting in the car park was fined $400 and ordered to do 40 hours community service. But he could have received a 5-year jail term, as the state law which covers this is part of a 1979 anti-hacking bill which makes this a felony. http://news.com.com/8301-10784_3-9722006-7.html I suspect he needs a better lawyer. If the coffee shop wants to limit access to customers, it can do so easily by issuing (free) username/password tickets and having the proxy server require a valid logon to connect. Indeed, in many cases where multiple WiFi networks are available, it is not possible to know where each is situated and which don't mind if you use them without any other form of purchase. In this case, the coffee shop owner did not complain; the man was spotted by a law enforcement officer who asked him what he was doing and then had to check that it was actually illegal. Again, I wonder what a better lawyer would have made of this, which seems - at first sight to this non-lawyer - to constitute self-incrimination.
Urgent Call For a Google At-Large Public Ombudsman http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000251.html June 11, 2007 In both public and government circles, concerns are rising regarding important aspects of Google's ongoing operations. Some of these concerns are very real, and some are more a matter of perception than reality -- often magnified simply because Google is involved. In either case, the situation is exacerbated by the extremely limited opportunities for the public to interact directly with Google in a meaningful way regarding increasingly sensitive matters that can have highly personal and very widespread impacts. A dedicated, at-large, public ombudsman to deal with these issues is urgently needed at Google, to interact directly and routinely with the public regarding Google, YouTube, and other affiliated operations. The privacy, content-related, and many other concerns of ordinary users and organizations, expressed to Google through currently available feedback channels, appear to routinely vanish into what is effectively a "black hole" -- with a lack of substantive responses in most cases. If you don't have a court order or a DMCA "take down" notice, Google can appear impenetrable to expressed concerns. Privacy International's reported inability to receive a response to their queries prior to the release of a new report regarding Google privacy is but one example of a seemingly pervasive situation at Google ( http://www.cnbc.com/id/19153743 ). I won't present here a critique of that report itself, but it's clear that both individuals and organizations commonly feel impotent when attempting to resolve many important issues with Google directly. In general, both politicians and government agencies appear increasingly unsatisfied with this status quo, and their reactions could be extremely damaging to Google and the broader Internet. I'm not suggesting another Google counsel. The ombudsman would have a role wholly different from that of Peter Fleischer's Global Privacy Counsel position, or Nicole Wong's Deputy General Counsel role. In fact, this would likely not primarily be a policy "development" role per se, though policy evolution over time would of course be significantly involved. The ombudsman would be a non-lawyer who would be assigned full-time to act as an easily approachable and highly available front-line interface between the public and Google operational/R&D teams. This individual would be the primary initial contact for most queries from individuals and organizations who have specific problems related to Google content, privacy, or a range of other related policy matters. This technically knowledgeable individual would be well-versed regarding the relevant issues and ideally already possess a high degree of trust within the larger Internet community. Such an ombudsman, by fostering open lines of communications, could immediately interact with members of the public and push relevant matters quickly up the chain of command inside Google for action as appropriate. There's simply no legitimate excuse for a public communications void of such a magnitude at this stage of Google's development, especially with an organization of Google's size, market share, influence, and immense technical competence. At a minimum, ordinary Google users should be able to get quick, reliable, and substantive responses and resolving dialogue for their Google-related concerns, even irrespective of any final dispositions. Communication is incredibly important in this sphere. The current situation is seriously and increasingly dangerous to Google. Backlash and reactive, knee-jerk legislation by ambitious politicians could easily unreasonably constrain and seriously damage Google, the broader Internet, and Net users around the world. A Google at-large ombudsman along the lines that I've outlined could be the best and most practical way to help avoid such negative outcomes, while not disrupting Google's operations and growth. It would most decidedly not be an easy job for anyone, but would be an important position that definitely needs to exist. I make this recommendation with what I believe are the best interests of both Google and the Net's users in mind. I want to see Google continue in its success. But a regulatory and public relations train wreck -- with major collateral damage across the Internet -- is increasingly likely unless serious and comprehensive improvements in Google's handling of this area are forthcoming in the extremely near future. The appointment of a qualified and dedicated ombudsman, with the sincere support and confidence of Google high-level management, could go a long way toward making Google an acknowledged leader in responsive operations, to the benefit of us all. Of course, it's not impossible that this call for a Google ombudsman will itself be ignored by Google. But in the final analysis, we can all hope that Google management will realize that creating this position is very simply the right thing to do. Lauren Weinstein http://www.pfir.org/lauren +1(818) 225-2800 email@example.com Co-Founder, PFIR: People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
AT&T's Internet Monitoring Plans http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000252.html News stories are now appearing widely about an AT&T plan to try block pirated content *at the network level*. See this example from the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-piracy13jun13,1,2155771.story The implications of this sort of network snooping are immense. One might assume that a primary target will be file sharing technologies. But to actually pick out particular content from those streams would imply the need to actually examine and characterize the payload of files to locate and block potentially offending music and/or video content. AT&T will no doubt suggest that this activity is akin to virus and spam filtering of e-mail for their customers. This would be a specious analogy. Spam filtering can usually be controlled by the user, and virtually all AT&T mail processing can be avoided by their customers if AT&T servers are not used. However, it sounds as if AT&T is planning a network monitoring regime that would not be dependent on the use of AT&T servers. What's more, the "benefits" of this monitoring would not be directed to the customers whose traffic is being monitored, but rather for the benefit of unrelated third parties. "Fingerprinting" of content for anti-piracy purposes is not always unacceptable. For example, Google/YouTube is reportedly starting tests of a copyrighted material characterization blocking system. Since users submitting videos to YouTube are doing so with the expectation of that content being hosted there, it is not unreasonable for YouTube to avoid hosting pirated materials whenever practicable. However, AT&T's proper role in this context (among an ever smaller number of ISP choices) is simply to move customer data traffic between points, not to be a content policing agent for third-party commercial interests, or a mass data conduit for government interests without appropriate legal authority, for that matter. The traffic under discussion, based on news reports about the AT&T plans so far, would typically not be directed to AT&T servers, and should not be subject to content inspection by AT&T, in the absence of specific targeted court orders or the like. We can get into a discussion of if and how common carrier considerations play into any of this anymore, and how encryption (and attempts to control and suppress encryption) will enter the mix, but the very fact that these AT&T plans have gotten this far is extremely disturbing. Finally, perhaps the most illuminating aspect of this situation is a statement by James W. Cicconi, an AT&T senior vice president, who is quoted as saying that AT&T wouldn't look at the privacy and other legal issues involved until *after* a monitoring technology has been chosen. That pretty much says it all. Lauren Weinstein http://www.pfir.org/lauren +1(818) 225-2800 firstname.lastname@example.org PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
The Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan reports (June 6, 2007) on a problem that affected some 10.000 pupils in the Lund school district: http://sydsvenskan.se/lund/article243800.ece It seems that whoever set up the mailing lists thought it would be a nice idea if one could send an e-mail to every pupil at once, perhaps to announce snow days or whatever. However, this function was open to everyone. A pupil obtained some NSFW material and decided to send it on to all of his fellow pupils. An administrator is quoted describing the material: "Det är så grovt att det inte kan uttryckas i ord. Jag har aldrig sett något vidrigare." (I cannot describe the brutality in words. I have never seen anything this disgusting before.) It took a number of days to remove the material from the servers after the incident came to light. The server was rented in another country (Norway) and it apparently took some convincing for them to go in and remove all copies of this e-mail, as there were so very many accounts affected. [Each account probably had to be looked at by a human. -dww] The school administration is debating whether to file charges against the pupil [I would instead file the charges against the person setting up this nonsense - dww], and has disabled the mass mailing functionality. Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff, FHTW Berlin, Treskowallee 8, 10313 Berlin +49-30-5019-2320 http://www.f4.fhtw-berlin.de/people/weberwu/
At our site, we use a number of techniques to detect malware infestation on our Windows XP-based PCs. One of these is the monitoring of auto-run locations in the Windows registry, because most malware installs itself to run automatically at system startup or logon time. The other day our system called out a piece of auto-running software in the user account of a visitor to our site, who was on loan to us for a week from a UK government institution. I assumed it was yet another minor piece of drive-by malware from a Web site, took our usual first-level action (remove registry entry, delete software) and assumed that would be that. Next day, the software was back. I took a closer look. It had installed a directory called "Whale Communications" in the "Program Files" directory, containing a .EXE file and numerous DLLs. I carefully checked the registry of the PC, re-deleted the software (this required killing Internet Explorer on the PC), and waited. Within an hour, it was back. Now, when we get to this point, one of two things is usually going on; either the user is hitting a particular porn/warez/game site very hard, or the malware uses some fairly classy techniques to keep itself installed. So I disabled the user's account, rebooted the PC, and waited for the phone to ring. Well, it turns out that all he was doing was reading his home office e-mail. His organisation uses a "key-ring" code generator gadget which requires code to be running on the client PC. So their remote e-mail portal detects whether this code is present, and if not, the browser automagically downloads it to the PC and installs it to auto-run. Slightly shocked at the rudeness (not to mention unreliability) of this approach, I called the organisation's IT department. My suggestion that it might not be a good idea to work this way was greeted with very little comprehension. Apparently, their in-house culture is that anyone is allowed to download anything they like, and nobody had given much thought to whether different rules might apply elsewhere (at our site, we can potentially have people physically removed from the building in such cases). I pointed out that there are plenty of challenge-response solutions out there which are entirely Web-based and don't require what, in many jurisdictions, would be regarded as vandalism or hacking of the PC being used, but the response was "well, this is the first time we've heard about this problem". (Regular RISKS readers may have heard that one before.) So the risks are multiple, ranging from being unable to get to your e-mail from any Internet cafe' as promised, if said Internet cafe' runs an OS for which the client software isn't available and/or has download blocking in operation, through to potential expulsion from the country or imprisonment (I don't like to think what might have happened had the person in question been using a computer in a US federal government office or one in several countries which I could name).
Re the thread on touch typing, and Martin Ward's quotation: "The most amazing achievement of the computer software industry is its continuing cancellation of the steady and staggering gains made by the computer hardware industry..."-- Henry Petroski A recent discussion in Slashdot referenced an article by Hal Licino: Licino compared a 1986 Mac Plus with 4 meg of RAM, and 8MHz 68000 and a 40MB hard drive running Mac OS 6.0.8, to a 2007 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ with 1GB of RAM, two 2.4GHz processors, and a 120 GB hard drive running Windows XP Professional SP2. He carefully details the test conditions and the rationale for the system configurations he chose. http://hubpages.com/hub/_86_Mac_Plus_Vs_07_AMD_DualCore_You_Wont_Believe_Who_Wins The tests basically tested only two applications, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, and it seems to me that the things he chose to measure were very reasonable, and not unrepresentative of ordinary use. The 1986 computer won 9 out of 17 of his tests. RISKS readers can read his article and decide what quibbles they have with the results. But the point is made. It is as if someone were to find that it took a roughly comparable time fly from Albany to Buffalo today as it took to travel on the Erie Canal. (For the record, the fastest and slowest itineraries Travelocity shows me for this 289-mile trip, are 1 hr. 10 minutes for a nonstop flight, and 5 hrs 57 min for an itinerary changing planes in Detroit. The average speed of 48 mph for that second option gives one pause, but it is still twenty-four times as fast as the fastest packets on the Erie Canal, which took 6 days.)
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