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 25 Issue 70

Monday 1 June 2009


Municipal politician unseated over fake e-mail
Kelly Bert Manning
A new biometrics risk?
Lee Rudolph
No-risk intelligence gathering?
iDEAL is not so ideal
Erling Kristiansen
Failures of eCommerce are Human not Computers
Chris J Brady
No 911 Service
Gene Wirchenko
Risks On Rails
Rob Slade
Train and iPod do not mix
Gene Wirchenko
Cycle-omatic complexity needed?
Jeremy Epstein
NZ bank lends $10M instead of $10K; plus Facebook
Rob Slade
Re: Tail strikes from improper settings
Dick Mills
Radio-isotope shortage, again...
Danny Burstein
Hutber's Law, Clarke's Third Law and Weasley's Law
Michael Bacon
Re: How small does the disk chunk have to be?
Jeremy Epstein
Fred Cohen
Jeremy Epstein
Re: secure but memorable passwords
David Alexander
Dave Martin
Paul Karagianis
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Municipal politician unseated over fake e-mail

Kelly Bert Manning <>
Wed, 27 May 2009 20:25:26 -0700

A municipal councilor in White Rock, British Columbia, has been booted out
of office for sending unsolicited e-mail with a fake sender name, from a
city hall computer, lying about his opponents. One of his opponents spent
several $100s on a forensic analysis and court case, recovering his

The lying spammer has lost his seat, fined $20,000 and has to refund his
court costs, which were paid by White Rock but may now be recoverable
due to the reversal of the election.

Do a web search on
   White Rock Coleridge Todd

Full text of decision.

A new biometrics risk?

Lee Rudolph
Wed, 27 May 2009 11:07:23 -0400 (EDT)

As reported at :

   A commonly-used cancer drug can make patients' fingerprints disappear,
   potentially causing problems for foreign travel, a doctor warns.  One
   patient was held by US immigration officials for four hours before they
   allowed him to enter the country.  The case is highlighted in the journal
   Annals of Oncology. ...  Although the drug is commonly used to treat a
   range of cancers, it can cause chronic inflammation of the palms or soles
   of the feet, leading to peeling, bleeding or blistering of the skin.
   Over time this can lead to the loss of fingerprints. ...

No-risk intelligence gathering?

Peter Neumann <>
Mon, 1 Jun 2009 14:21:32 -0700

...Mike Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence (located at the intersection of the Dulles Toll Road and Route
123), would say only that if a communications line used by the agency was
cut, the nation's intelligence-gathering would carry on uninterrupted.  "No
particular project puts us at risk -- highway construction, building
construction," Birmingham said. "We don't have a single point of failure.
Our systems are redundant."  [Source: *The Washington Post*, 30 May 2009;
TNX to Mark Luntzel for spotting this one.  PGN]

iDEAL is not so ideal

Erling Kristiansen <>
Tue, 26 May 2009 22:19:03 +0200

Ideal is an electronic payment service for on-line purchases operated in The
Netherlands (and maybe other countries -- I don't know).  It works as

* You complete the details of your purchase on the web site of the merchant
* You select iDEAL as payment method
* You are re-directed to the on-line banking service of the bank of your
* After logging in with your usual credentials, you are presented with a
  pre-filled bank transfer form
* Accepting the form, the payment is done, and you are returned to the
  merchant, who confirms your purchase and payment

In a recent purchase I made, rather than confirming payment, I got a pop-up
something like "Payment failed. Please try again later or pay by other

I did just that: Tried again later. Same result. Tried again a lot
later. Same result.  Checking my bank account, it turned out that 3 payments
had been debited.

The merchant dealt with the case in a professional manner, accepting one
payment and refunding me the two other. But it took several phone calls,
faxing supporting material and a few days before I was really sure that the
holiday I had booked was actually confirmed. Apparently, they had some
trouble locating a bank transfer that was not properly linked to the

Is the iDEAL protocol really so sloppy that it cannot deal properly with a
fault somewhere half-way the process? Or is it the implementation by a
particular vendor that is broken?  What I really object to is the "try again
later" phrase that seemingly implies that the whole transaction was voided.

Failures of eCommerce are Human not Computers

Chris J Brady <>
Thu, 28 May 2009 04:03:57 -0700 (PDT)

It never ceases to amaze me at the ineptitude of e-commerce web sites to
deliver items paid for.  There are excellent e-commerce web sites such as
British Airways flight booking, Expedia, eBay and Amazon.

The common factor is that most (99.99%) manage to take a customer's money
from a bank or credit card account almost quicker than a web page takes to
refresh. And at least with airlines a customer then gets an e-ticket.

But it is companies that sell hard goods that are continually of concern. I
have had little trouble with Amazon who use 'normal mail services. But eBay
sellers, and companies such as Argos, Littlewoods, GUS, etc. (aka online
mail order catalogue companies) ALL have a real problem in actually
delivering goods to purchasers. The courier companies -- DHL, FedEx, Parcel
Force, etc. -- even if in-house -- are the weak link in the e-commerce

The issues are

1) These companies deliver at their convenience forgetting that many people
are not at home but out at work, and/or

2) The laziness of the courier drivers is such that they don't bother to
leave an attempted delivery card, and ultimately the goods are 'returned to
sender' -- unclaimed.

In February I was sent from the USA some valuable and rare archive video
recordings on tape. They failed to arrive at my address in the UK. The
courier fee was $60. After persistent enquiries at both ends they had simply
disappeared -- each 'country' blamed the other. The tracking number(s)
didn't work.  *Three* months later the package turned up again -- but at the
sender's address as 'returned unclaimed at destination.' It appears that
once again the courier driver had simply failed to leave an 'attempted
delivery card.'  And the courier company had failed to alert me by mail
and/or email. So the goods went beck to sender.

Last year I bought some clubbing clothes from a eBay company in Germany.
Again the goods were dispatched using a German courier -- I can't read
German so tracking on its web site was a problem. The goods never
arrived. Again they were sent back, and I had to raise a formal complaint
with eBay and PayPal to obtain a refund.

I know that I'm not the only one affected in the UK. And this appears to be
a world-wide problem. A friend of mine in New York City always has goods
delivered to his parents in Vermont because he can never get them delivered
properly in New York.

It is not usually the fault or risks of using computers and the Internet
that fails the development of e-commerce so badly. It is the human element -
aka the lazy courier companies and their drivers that fail the system. I see
no solution to this even as the Internet gets faster.

No 911 Service

Gene Wirchenko <>
Mon, 01 Jun 2009 09:51:34 -0700

I hope no one found out the hard way:
"Geezer phones don't work
Part of

Thousands of phones sold by Jitterbug, a mobile operator that specializes in
simple handsets for limited uses such as emergency calls, are being recalled
because they can't be used to call 911 in some rare cases. Jitterbug sells
bare-bones handsets and no-contract service plans geared toward seniors and
other consumers who don't make heavy use of cell phones. One of its phones,
the Jitterbug OneTouch, has dedicated buttons for the Jitterbug operator,
one preset number, and 911 in place of a numeric keypad. That phone, as well
as the standard Jitterbug phone with a keypad, have been recalled because
they can't be used to call 911 emergency lines in some U.S. areas where they
should be able to."

Risks On Rails

Rob Slade <>
Fri, 29 May 2009 16:47:58 -0800

In 2004, a politically controversial decision was made to cease operations
of BCRail, and sell a 999 year lease to CN.

A section of the line near the town of Lillooet is known as one of the
longest continuous mountain grades in Canada.  BCRail used dynamic brakes.

CN used air brakes, and confirmed this decision in early 2006, despite
concerns raised by employees.

On June 29, 2006, a train derailed on that section, and two employees died.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has now ruled that the failure was
caused by an inadequate braking system used in the steep mountain canyon.

"[N]o risk assessment was done before removing locomotives with dynamic
braking from this extreme mountain territory."

Train and iPod do not mix

Gene Wirchenko <>
Sun, 24 May 2009 22:51:24 -0700

Jason Hewlett, Fatality: 19-year-old killed while walking on train tracks;
iPod may have drowned out sound of train's warning whistle, *The Daily New*,
Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, 22 May 2009, A1-A2, PGN-ed

Liam Peel, an 19-year-old Kamloops man, may not have heard a CP Rail train
approaching from behind him at 56 km/h, because he was apparently listening
to an iPod while walking along one of the track rails, dressed in a black
hoodie.  A registered audiologist suggested that an iPod can crank out up to
100 decibels, and ear buds tend to drown out external sounds.  [At maximum
volume, our youths are probably going deaf as well.]

Cycle-omatic complexity needed?

Jeremy Epstein <>
Fri, 29 May 2009 10:20:27 -0400

Floyd Landis' 2006 Tour de France victory is being questioned because of
allegedly hacked computer systems that held the drug test results.

Clearly, to keep drug testing computers safe from Tour de France attackers,
we need higher cycle-omatic complexity of the systems.

The RISK?  Some of us will go to any length to pull a pun out of a
marginally security related article.

NZ bank lends $10M instead of $10K; plus Facebook (Wells, RISKS-25.69)

Rob Slade <>
Mon, 25 May 2009 14:15:27 -0800

Actually, I'd just seen this in another place, with rather complementary
info.  "The fugitive couple and their small entourage have been traced to
Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, largely via one of their indiscreet
updates on social networking site Facebook."  I thought the "tracking crooks
by Facebook" aspect made it RISKS fodder in another direction:

Re: Tail strikes from improper settings (Knowlton, RISKS-25.68)

Dick Mills <>
Fri, 29 May 2009 11:17:52 -0400

> An airplane on a take-off run clearly could perform an automatic sanity
> check (comparing thrust settings and actual acceleration with gross
> weight, air speed/temperature/pressure, flap settings ...) and raise an
> alarm if something's seriously amiss.

As an engineer, I love this idea.  A dash of physics, a bit of programming,
a tiny display.  Life is good.

In fact, you could improve it.  GPS databases already know which airport
you're at, and your heading tells it which runway you're on.  It would be
easy to look up runway length from that input.

As a pilot, I'm highly skeptical of any such alarm that may go off at the
particularly sensitive time as take off.  The alarm could trigger an
inappropriate takeoff abort; and that could lead to a crash.

Displaying a new piece of information, say actual versus planned
acceleration, would be very welcome in the first 100 feet of takeoff roll.
The same information would be very unwelcome a few seconds later as we near
takeoff speed at 200 feet per second, At that point, things happen too
rapidly and the pilot is too focused to deal with distractions or cognitive

That makes the design an engineering challenge -- the more time the gizmo
takes to make sure that estimates are accurate and alarms are not false, the
less valuable the information is to the pilot.  Also, if we create a
situation where trust transitions from the machine to the pilot's instincts,
and there is no clear-cut transition boundary, then the design is a bad one.

Any new gizmo in the cockpit might be heroic or counterproductive depending
on the human interface, and our ability to integrate it into pilot training.
We need to develop practiced responses to inputs that lead to practiced
recovery procedures.

Dick Mills, SV Tarwathie  blog:

radio-isotope shortage, again...

danny burstein <>
Sun, 24 May 2009 23:13:40 -0400 (EDT)

[The dangers of not having multiple sources for, in this case, radioisotopes,
strikes yet again.  This primarily affects Canadian medical institutions,
but there's lots of impact in the US as well.  (Maybe it wouldn't have been
so bad if Columbia University had gotten that nuclear reactor after all...)]

Peter Zimonjic, Isotope crisis may be worse than forecast; Some patients
will be 'low priority'

Patient groups say lives are at stake because of the shrinking number of
nuclear imaging scans available at Canadian hospitals.  The situation is
expected to worsen in the coming weeks as the medical isotope shortage
intensifies because of the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor.
[These isotopes, which have short radioactive half lives, thus can't be
"stored", are used in many medical procedures. Oh, and for other purposes,

Hutber's Law, Clarke's Third Law and Weasley's Law (Hollman, R-25.68)

"Michael Bacon" <>
Tue, 26 May 2009 13:34:03 +0100

In RISKS-25.68, David Hollman (In a Lab, an Ever-Growing Database of DNA
Profiles) asks if there is, "A niche catchphrase for the effect where
information in digital form has more credibility than in other forms?"  In
the same issue, Bob Frankston (Re: Australian emergency services) asks
whether anyone thought to play the audio recording over a telephone line.

Whilst I am insufficiently witty to think of an appropriate catchphrase,
these both illustrate Hutber's Law -- "Improvement means deterioration".

They also suggest to me two other laws.

The first is Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, that any sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from magic . and so it appears is much of
today's technology to the non-technical and because of the increasing
diversification of skills, even many of the 'techies'.

The second could be termed Weasley's Law, from the character Arthur Weasley
in the Harry Potter book 'The Chamber of Secrets': "Never trust anything if
you can't see where it keeps its brain."

But maybe the appropriate catchphrase is that old one ., "Computer says

Re: How small does the disk chunk have to be? (RISKS 25.68)

Jeremy Epstein <>
Thu, 28 May 2009 12:46:27 -0400

Quoting an article about drive destruction, Fred Cohen disagreed with the
adequacy of Canada's tax agency cutting disk drives into pieces "no bigger
than the width of a pencil", saying the pieces "will have to be small enough
to make the content on one chunk of no utility. At the density of a HDD, a
pencil width holds quite a bit of data."

Fred is right in the literal sense, but one has to consider the
overall threat model.  Given a choice of obtaining and putting
together a disk drive from pieces no bigger than the width of a pencil
or hacking into a site to steal the data, the risks to the attacker
for a hacking attempt are much lower, the specialized knowledge and
equipment required much less, and the likelihood of success much
greater.  I fear that following Fred's cautionary words might lead
organizations to overemphasize drive destruction and underemphasize
the risks of software flaws.

Given everything we've read about tax, military, and medical systems
being routinely compromised, a pencil width of data is fine with me
for destruction of a disk that has my personal information.  What
keeps me up at night is the probability that the organization put a
firewall in place and called it a day.


Re: How small does the disk chunk have to be? (RISKS 25.68)

Fred Cohen <>
Thu, 28 May 2009 09:54:58 -0700

I certainly agree that risks should be rationally managed. However, my
caution stands. I don't believe I said that it was a bad risk management
decision -- only that the residual data on a chunk of a disk is
substantial. Evaluating the risks is not something that was discussed in the
previous article -- rather it seemed to me to portray a level of risk
thought to be acceptable with no particular reason behind it. I would
welcome the detailed explanation from Canada's tax agency about how they
made the risk management decision and what residual risks they decided to
accept, assuming that such a rational decision was made. Which brings me to
your point, Jeremy... What is the basis for your conclusion with respect to
the relative risks you identify, and how did you do your calculations? Or
were you just making a broad generalization without a firm basis like
Canada's Tax Agency did in its press release (although perhaps not in its
actual decision process - we don't know).

Fred Cohen & Associates tel/fax: 925-454-0171
572 Leona Drive Livermore, CA 94550

Re: How small does the disk chunk have to be? (RISKS 25.68)

Jeremy Epstein <>
Fri, 29 May 2009 10:49:40 -0400

Fred, I think we're in agreement that the residual data on a chunk of disk
is substantial.  While it's true that the evaluation wasn't discussed, the
implication was that chunks of that size are "safe", and therefore there was
an implicit risk assessment.

As for my conclusion about the relative risks, I assumed that the pieces of
disk aren't labeled or segregated when being disposed of (i.e., so disk A is
in a bag labeled "tax data disk A" while disk B is in a separate bag).  I
also assumed that their application security is neither better nor worse
than the typical site - namely there's a 90% likelihood (give or take) that
the site can be compromised with no more than a couple weeks of work by
reasonably skilled non-nation-state attackers.  So my calculation was that
if there's a 90% probability of an arm's length essentially undetectable
attack in a couple weeks vs. obtaining the physical media and analysis
equipment and putting it back together (which, from what I've read, takes
months or longer), the odds are very much on the software attack.

I don't know how much data is destroyed in the process of chopping the disks
up, and how much of it is recoverable through error correcting codes, use of
RAID (if an attacker is able to get multiple copies of the same data), etc.
That would obviously also come into the risk assessment - but I believe the
order of magnitude difference is large enough to make software attacks a
clear winner for the bad guy.

So, yes I did do a (very informal) risk assessment in making my statement.
Was it a broad generalization?  Yes, but an informed one.

Re: secure but memorable passwords (Colbourn, RISKS-25.69)

David Alexander <>
Mon, 25 May 2009 06:43:28 +0100

I have just read Phil Colbourns advice on creating a secure password.  It's
good, but I don't think it goes far enough. It should be adequate for
slowing down most attackers, but it won't work for anyone knowledgeable who
can access the .sam file. Before an e-mail comes 'flooding in' to point it
out - I know that should only be a very few people and it should be one of
the best defended files in the whole system.

Someone has completed the task of generating 'rainbow tables' for every
Microsoft password combination up to 14 characters in length.  It's a 64 Gb
download, but it is publicly available. For sysadmin and any other password
with privileges, I regard anything less than 15 characters that uses the MS
password hashing algorithm as broken.  Eight characters is not long, not any

David Alexander, Towcester, Northamptonshire, England

Re: memorable but secure passwords (Colbourn, RISKS-25.69)

Dave Martin <>
Mon, 25 May 2009 18:10:05 -0400

In RISKS-25.69 Phil Colbourn presented a method for creating "memorable but
secure passwords" but those 2 things, memorable and secure, seem to be
directly at odds with each other.

Perhaps I have a naive view of the problems with passwords but it escapes me
why passwords can not be phrases rather than based on some arcane and
usually difficult set of arbitrary "rules".

It seems to me that the stricter the rules the easier it makes things for
those would like to compromise a site with said rules. A phrase that
includes upper and lower case letters (if desired) as well as spaces and
punctuation creates a much large space that must be consider when attempting
to figure out a password.

I've been designing sites to allow the use of a phrase of up to 255
characters for a number of years and have yet to have any of them
compromised. It's a lot easier to remember "My first car was a '65 Mustang"
than it is to remember "Ab19EloG#z" And a phrase that is easily remembered
doesn't need to be written down.

Re: How to make memorable but secure passwords

"Paul Karagianis" <>
Tue, 26 May 2009 17:26:00 -0400

How so?  Or, more importantly, shouldn't we be asking on a target site by
target site basis: "why is this better than three letters lower case, that
aren't my initials"?  eg: "cat".

The usual nonsense about complex passwords being needed to defeat
"dictionary lookup" - a concept that depends on a sites admin being willing
to hand out his encrypt - doesn't apply to the typical e-store that is
willing to send you your password in clear text.

I'd be interested in typical e-store policies on people playing "guess the
password"... how long do they pause between attempts, do they "lock" the
account for some time period after so many tries etc.  But in the real world
I'm much more concerned about some manager getting his laptop stolen from
the airport bar with my account info, along with the info for 78,000 other
customers, on it.

The escalation we've seen in trying to get the Internet user base to adopt
ever sillier passwords that they inevitably need to copy onto post-its on
the bottom of their keyboards seems, to me anyway, to have become insanely
disproportionate to the threat.  Is this still a real problem for anyone

Working at a University requires that we set initial passwords for students
to something not easily deduced by their classmates or we'll inevitably be
told that any account abuse we follow up on was done by "someone guessed my
password".  But that's more of a political solution to a different issue.

Aside from the above, I suppose one may be trying to protect oneself from
someone who uses the same machine you do, but I fail to see how an
environment that threatening (which suggests a key logger might be in the
opponents arsenal) would benefit from a more more complex password.

I guess what I'm asking for here is, if you're suggesting a best practice,
could you (rhetorical "you"... I'm not trying to hold the authors of this
post or many similar ones immediately accountable) give a little more detail
about the threat you're helping us avoid?

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