The RISKS Digest
Volume 25 Issue 62

Wednesday, 1st April 2009

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

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GPS Outages Feared
Mike Tashker
Ned Potter via PGN
A Peering risk
Chris Leeson
Google Calendar as a single point of failure?
Jeremy Epstein
Safety and man/machine interactions: Traffic crossings
Jerry Leichter
The Chinese iTunes Gift Voucher Trick
Monty Solomon
The Police don't send chain letters
Richard O'Keefe
UK considering generalised use of deep packet inspection
Toby Douglass
Software Related Accident: Pipe-Laying Equipment
David Smith
Spam as an indicator of network health
When Clouds go Bad: Losing Data in MobileMe
Nick Rothwell
Only allow 1, 2, and 100 year domain name registration
Re: ESTA visa waiver online
Chris J Brady
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

GPS Outages Feared

Mike Tashker <>
Wed, 1 Apr 2009 11:59:21 -0700

In a press conference today (1 April 2009), a spokesman for the U.S. Air
Force GPS Wing has confirmed fears that a worldwide outage of GPS service is
likely.  The current system may reach peak capacity before the launch of the
next-generation Global Positioning System Space Segment satellites, known as
GPS Block III, in 2014.

"The huge proliferation of civilian hand-held, cellphone, and vehicle-based
GPS equipment has taxed available bandwidth on the existing satellite
constellation beyond our expectations," said Major Stan Ford Parkinson. "We
expect that the transceivers in the Block III satellites will handle the
load through 2040.  But there's a likelihood of a gap — a rolling worldwide
GPS 'brown-out' — between now and the first launches."

The Air Force is planning a competitive procurement to study the potentially
catastrophic effects on transportation and other industries that could occur
as early as 2011.  This appears to be a good use of stimulus funds,
especially if it stimulates some more far-sighted thinking.

Mike Tashker


"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Thu, 26 Mar 2009 9:18:20 PDT

Ned Potter, Conficker Computer Worm Threatens Chaos
Or Is It Just an April Fool's Joke? Security Groups Unite to Stop It
ABC News <>, 25 Mar 2009
  [Thanks to Phil Porras for this one.  PGN-ed]

Somewhere out there, perhaps in Eastern Europe, perhaps next door to us, a
very clever hacker is spreading a sophisticated little computer worm called
Conficker <>.

It could make an electronic mess as it spreads from one computer to
another, taking over machines and commanding them to do things their
users never intended.

"We've got some bad guys out there who are extremely sophisticated,"
said Merrick Furst, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who
also chairs an Internet security firm called Damballa. "There are a huge
number of machines that might be able to be controlled by people other
than the owners of those machines."

Who is behind this computer attack? And what do they want from us? Are
they trying to bring the world's computers to a halt? Or is the whole
thing just some elaborate April Fool's joke?

"It's not an April Fools prank," said Phillip Porras, a program director
at SRI International, a major technology research firm. "We don't know
much about how Conficker is being used. We are not sure why Conficker
was built."   [... Long item.]

  [Also note these, courtesy of Monty Solomon.  PGN]
  Technical Cyber Security Alert TA09-088A

  Conficker Worm: Help Protect Windows from Conficker

  The 7 Most Important Things to Know About Conficker

  Is 'Conficker' Solved? Researchers Develop Scan Tool,2817,2344060,00.asp

A Peering risk

"Chris Leeson" <>
Wed, 11 Mar 2009 10:47:00 -0000

According to *The Register*, a site called "Person Rating" has been
launched. where you can - anonymously - enter a person's name and
rate them against a set of criteria.

The idea is that - as is supposed to happen with Wikipedia - a large number
of contributors will even out any "extremes of opinion".  Of course, there
are a number of risks that regular readers of the forum will be all too
familiar with — for example,

 * Mistaken identity (only identifying by name?)
 * Malicious updates (Wikipedia already has this problem with
   pages on politicians)
 * Invasion of Privacy/Libel

*El Reg* is, of course, rather dismissive of the site:

  "The idea is that the crowd will weed out extremes of opinion and the
  result will be an accurate and impartial description of the person
  concerned - which is about as likely as Greenpeace developing an
  independent nuclear deterrent."

  "Unlike Wikipedia, PersonRatings is intending to make money though
  advertising, though it seems more likely the service will quietly
  disappear when the crowds decide they've got better things to do than rate
  their friends and colleagues for the benefit of targeted advertisers."

At least the site has some sort of plan for making money. It will need
it, if and when the libel cases start appearing.

Google Calendar as a single point of failure?

Jeremy Epstein <>
Thu, 12 Mar 2009 17:45:44 -0400

I keep most of my scheduled appointments on Google Calendar (although it is
a pain since I have to be careful not to put proprietary information in my
appointment descriptions).  I missed a teleconference today, because Google
Calendar said it was at 4pm, and when I showed up no one was there.  Going
back through my notes I discovered the meeting was supposed to be at 3pm,
and I had set it up as a recurring event.  I then discovered from reading
Google Help forums that there are known problems - when Daylight Savings
Time started, recurring events got moved either an hour earlier or an hour
later, depending on whether you were the originator of the meeting or an

There was another symptom I noticed - my meeting was at 3pm (Standard time)
which got shifted to 4pm (Savings) time.  When I tried to change the time
back to 3pm, it had no effect - presumably because it thought the meeting
was already scheduled for 3pm (Standard).  So to make it show up on my
calendar at 3pm (Savings), I had to change the schedule to 2pm (Standard).

Once Google fixes the problem, I have to remember to move the scheduled time
back again, so I show up at the right time!

RISK?  When there's a shared calendar infrastructure and it's buggy,
everyone ends up at the wrong time.  Something similar happened last year
when the US switched to Savings time earlier than in previous years -
Microsoft and other vendors rushed out patches to handle the time change.

  [Along many other problems discussed here, this one seems to recur.  PGN]

Safety and man/machine interactions: Traffic crossings

Jerry Leichter <>
Thu, 12 Mar 2009 15:35:51 -0400

Interesting article about the way people interact with cars around the world:

A quote: England has been particular aggressive about having all kinds of
warning mechanisms for both drivers and pedestrians.  "But sometimes drivers
become so inured to this street 'furniture' they forget to look for people
crossing - they forget what it's there for.  And a 1970 study by the
Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal looking at San Diego accidents
found incidents were twice as likely at 'marked crossings' as unmarked
crossings.  Why? Pedestrians lose a sense of personal responsibility - they
think that because they are at an official crossing, they don't need to look
where they are going. And then they step out into oncoming traffic."

The Chinese iTunes Gift Voucher Trick

Monty Solomon <>
Thu, 12 Mar 2009 01:09:34 -0500

While there are some legitimate digital music download sites in China -
including 9Sky, Top100 and the recently launched Wawawa - digital music is
proving to be a tough sell in the P.R.C, partly because of the market
dominance of Baidu's free mp3 search. There are, however, people making
decent profit in this as yet unmeasurable market: the hackers of Apple's
iTunes store gift vouchers and their local agents.

In China's biggest C2C online shopping site Taobao, $200USD iTunes gift
cards are for sale at 17.9 RMB, roughly $2.6 USD. ...

The Police don't send chain letters

"Richard O'Keefe" <>
Tue, 10 Mar 2009 11:39:47 +1300

The #09/#90 mobile phone warning has recently been making the rounds in New
Zealand.  Apparently some people don't routinely check Snopes.Com.  The
Sunday *Star Times* issue 8 March 2009 has an article about it on page A6.
The point of interest to RISKS readers is this:

  the hoax's credibility was bolstered by the fact that it had been
  circulated by a police staff member ... and carried her New Zealand Police
  e-mail signature.  ... the staff member had forwarded it ...  in a
  personal capacity.

So someone in the Police fell for it, didn't think to check it, and
forwarded it to her friends just like anyone else might, but recipients
took it as a police endorsement of the content.  The same article quotes
a spokesman saying

  Also, people should remember New Zealand police don't use chain e-mails as
  a way of putting forward information.  Neither do banks or anybody else
  for that matter.

UK considering generalised use of deep packet inspection

"Toby Douglass" <>
Wed, 18 Mar 2009 23:38:36 +0100 (CET),1000000189,39629479,00.htm

"Under the EU Data Retention Directive, from 15 March 2009, all UK
Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to store customer traffic
data for a year."

This means that right now, *today*, all ISPs in the UK must now store when
and who you sent e-mail to or received e-mail from.  The e-mail I sent
earlier to a friend about this has been logged; that it came from me and
when it was sent.  In case he's a terrorist.  I mean, he's a sixty-five
year old retired patent agent, but you can't be too careful.  He *does*
have a huge beard.  Lots of terrorists have huge beards.

So if you're having an affair, best not to communicate via e-mail, because
that evidence may be used against you in court.  I wish I was kidding, but
this is going to happen now.  Divorce will occur, the house will be
contested, the man or wife may suspect infidelity and the evidence — all
e-mail, who they were sent to and when — *is now recorded*.  Don't need a
telescope to see this one coming.

But what's being discussed now is deep packet inspection, which means
actually recording the data content - what you actually wrote in your
e-mail, the comment you typed on a web-site, etc.  So basically EVERY
communication you have on the net is recorded by the Government and stored
for however many years it is.

So when you write to your wife about the fantastic sex you had last night,
it's recorded.  When you e-mail a friend about your private sexual
fantasies, it's recorded.  When you discuss the abuse you experienced as a
child from your parents, it's recorded.

For anti-terrorism purposes.

I mean, there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that you are, or could
ever be, under any circumstances WHATSOEVER, a danger to anyone.  If there
was enough evidence that you could be convicted in a court of law after
due process, you would already be in that court of law.  That evidence
does not exist.

But every detail, everything you write on-line, would be recorded by the
State.  Monitored.  Read by software operated by a stranger, sometimes
read by strangers, apparently to see if they can find people writing
things which give them away as terrorists.

On a related note, the "e-borders" scheme has stared rolling out in the UK.

Every single person entering or leaving the UK must provide their travel
plans.  Where they're going, how long for, what for, who with, etc.
Recorded, with complete unoriginality, in a huge database for however many
years.  I haven't read about the judicial violence to be used in the event
of non-compliance; presumably you will not be allowed to enter the country.
I'm wondering what will happen if you are *inside* and you want to get
*out?* will you be refused exit from the country?  or will you be fined?  if
you keep refusing, what happens then?  thousands of pounds worth of fines?

Coverage is expected to be about 60% by the end of this year.

The Government uses judicial violence (fines, prison sentences) to compel
obedience to their demands.  I am *forced* to have my private affairs
violated.  On what basis is this done?  the only ethical justification can
be self-defence, of oneself or on behalf of others.  There is no such
justification for there is no reason whatsoever to think me a danger to

To be sure, it may be there a very, very, *very* few (a couple of
thousand, out of 61,000,000 people) who are a danger but it cannot be
known who they are; but there is a certain level of risk which cannot
practically be reduced whilst retaining liberty and freedom.

It is possible to reduce that risk if you eliminate liberty and freedom.
Watching everyone, all of the time, reduces that risk and eliminates liberty
and freedom.

Historically, we have had a police force and an intelligence service to
deal with these problems and have chosen to retain liberty and freedom.

Spending 1,200 million pounds to compel all 61 million people to expose
their private affairs and have those affairs permanently stored in a
database is both profoundly unfree and also profoundly inefficient.  That
money would achieve far better results going into the police and
intelligence services.

I have to say, I am throughly miserable and depressed by all of this.  I
have all the material needs and comforts in the world; and I am deeply
unhappy.  The Government, in my view, has missed the point of existence.

As an aside, I left the UK (for Amsterdam) nine months ago.  I will not be
returning while these monstrous schemes exist.

Software Related Accident: Pipe-Laying Equipment

"David Smith" <>
Mon, 16 Mar 2009 09:19:39 +0000

IMCA Safety Flash 18/08 December 2008

These flashes summarise key safety matters and incidents, allowing wider
dissemination of lessons learnt from them. The information below has been
provided in good faith by members and should be reviewed individually by
recipients, who will determine its relevance to their own operations.

The effectiveness of the IMCA safety flash system depends on receiving
reports from members in order to pass on information and avoid repeat
incidents. Please consider adding the IMCA secretariat (
to your internal distribution list for safety alerts and/or manually
submitting information on specific incidents you consider may be
relevant. All information will be anonymised or sanitised, as appropriate.

A number of other organisations issue safety flashes and similar documents
which may be of interest to IMCA members. Where these are particularly
relevant, these may be summarised or highlighted here.  Links to known
relevant websites are provided at Additional links
should be submitted to

Failure of Pipe Handling System Causes Injuries and Fatalities

A member has reported an incident in which the failure of a J-lay
pipe-handling system caused two pipes to be dropped, one of which caused
injuries to eight people, four of whom died as a result. During pipe-laying
operations, a system failure in the hydraulic pipe handling system of the
J-lay tower (JLT) caused two quadruple joints being handled at the same time
in two different areas of the tower to drop suddenly. Each piece of pipe was
50m long with a diameter of 24* and weighed approximately 20 tons.

Just prior to the incident the pipe-laying operation was stopped.  Operators
reported a system failure and that the hydraulic power had been lost. Such
an occurrence was not particularly unusual and, in line with company
procedures, this was investigated immediately. A team of technicians led by
the chief electrician tried without success to resolve the problems. After
these attempts, a more in-depth analysis was made. It was decided, on the
basis of input from the system diagnostics, to perform a memory
reset. Following this the system appeared to be running correctly. This was
the first time that a full memory reset was requested by the internal
diagnostics of the control system during a project operational phase.

Only after all indications that everything was in order and all systems were
up and running again was the instruction given to the operator to restart
the hydraulic packs. As soon as the hydraulic power packs were started, a
loud bang was heard along with the noise of the hydraulic systems. One
quadruple joint within the J-lay tower, held by the transfer system, was
released and fell about a metre to the upper welding deck. At the same time,
the quadruple joint held by the pipe elevator at the top of the J-lay tower
was also released from its clamps and the hydraulic safety stop swung away,
allowing the pipe to fall the full height of the tower, smashing through the
access platform located outside the non-destructive testing/coating station
to the lower deck below.

All the people who were injured had been on the access platform which was
destroyed. The force of impact caused some of the injured persons to fall
down on to the lower deck at the base of the pipe-lay tower and some to be
thrown overboard.

Eight persons were injured, two seriously and two slightly. Four of the
injured persons died as a result of their injuries.

The primary causes of the incident were found to be:

* Sudden release of the two quadruple joints was caused by a failure in
conceptual design of the control system software. The program relevant to
the JLT initialising instruction was pre-loaded in the erasable programmable
read-only memory (EPROM) of the programmable logic controller (PLC) with the
instruction to open all clamps. Members are recommended to investigate the
possibility that this could happen to the PLC-based control systems on
equipment on their vessels.

* The unnecessary presence and uncontrolled access of working personnel on
to the access platform destroyed by the falling pipe exposed personnel to
suspended load/dropped object hazard.  Following investigation of the
incident, a number of corrective actions were put in place by the company:

 - The first primary cause was resolved with the removal of the
   EPROM memories from the system;

 - The second primary cause has been addressed by a revision of the
   vessel and JLT working methodologies; pipe handling activities have been
   reconsidered through a dropped object philosophy in order to identify
   mechanical and electrical barriers, additional controls, and new set of
   operational procedures;

* Electrical controls:

 - a number of clamp opening operations were prevented by adding electrical
   circuit breakers

 - all critical sequences will be called by PLC and must be confirmed by
   operator via electrical push buttons;

* Mechanical controls:

 - different systems have been and will be implemented to prevent the
   vertical pipe drop in any section of the JLT, to restrain lateral pipe
   movement and fall and to secure the pipe until the internal line up is
   completed in the upper welding station

 - an additional public address system was installed for use during
   quadruple joint loader lift, and audible and visible alarms for elevator

 - a safety net was installed underneath the J-Lay tower platforms to
   guarantee protection against persons falling overboard;

* Procedures were revised in light of the incident, with the following
points highlighted:

 - all pipe handling activities are to be considered as working under
   suspended loads

 - the immediate area around the JLT is restricted to essential
   personnel only

 - transit and from the JLT to be controlled by dedicated watchmen

 - no personnel at all allowed in certain areas during J-lay operation

David H Smith MIET, MBCS, MACMm, Frazer-Nash Consultancy Ltd., Unit 11,
Herringston Barn, Herringston, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 9PU, UK  01305 217910

Spam as an indicator of network health

Sun, 08 Mar 2009 19:26:48 +0800

There I was listening to the mosquitoes, when it dawned on me that just like
mosquitoes, you just can't stamp out spam e-mail. And just like mosquitoes
are a good indicator of environmental health, spam is a good indicator of
network health, for the common man.

If there was a Silent Spring spam-wise, you had better check to see if you
are really getting all of your legitimate e-mail too!

Likewise, spam phone calls are nature's way of helping you check the

When Clouds go Bad: Losing Data in MobileMe

Nick Rothwell <>
Sat, 7 Mar 2009 21:29:57 +0000

I've been using Apple's MobileMe synchronised online services for contacts,
calendar and file sharing on a number of Macs of varying ages, as well as my
iPhone. It works fine under OS X 10.5 (Leopard), but has always seemed a
little wobbly under 10.4 (Tiger): contacts occasionally not showing up, bits
of the calendar not appearing, to-do items vanishing, that kind of
thing. Nothing too worrying, since it's always seemed to be a local display
problem under Tiger, and MobileMe's "cloud" has always had a complete set of

A couple of days ago, the synchronisation process on an old PowerBook
running Tiger went a bit off the rails, and it complained about data
clashes, offered options to merge, and so on. I clicked the "overwrite this
computer with contents of MobileMe" button, and before I knew it, my entire
contact database had been wiped - *poof*. (Well, all except a single contact
in Australia.)

In a state of some annoyance, I checked my iPhone. Contact database gone -

I checked MobileMe online at Contacts - *poof*.

Well, I will say this for MobileMe: their over-the-air synchronisation does
indeed seem to be fast and efficient.

Faced with a Plan A recovery procedure of waiting on hold for a MobileMe
Support chat session with Apple (whilst needing to get out to a client site,
ideally with a non-empty iPhone), I opted for Plan B: rush upstairs, pull
the ethernet cable from the (Leopard) Mac mini, fire up Address Book and
export contacts to a file, plug in ethernet, synchronise, re-import
contacts, synchronise again.

So, the obvious risks: (i) a rogue client can quickly and efficiently wipe
out a dataset in a high-speed, wireless network service, and some devices
(like the iPhone) are always linked to it. (ii) A cloud is not a
backup. Wipe the data in a cloud, and the wipe will propagate everywhere
just like you told it to - there isn't an accessible "previous version" to
go back to. See also: "A RAID Device is Not a Backup." (Luckily, I had an
inadvertent backup on the Mac mini.)

"But," my inner newbie says, "I'm running the Time Machine backup software
on the MacBook Pro. Why don't I just roll back to an earlier Address Book?"
Well, despite Apple's claims that Time Machine "backs up everything", it
really is just a file backup program, and the contacts and calendar
information lives in some invisible database somewhere, out of the backup

So, risk (iii): assuming that a backup program will work on important data
which is not obviously file-based.

(*) While I think about it, this might also be due to the fact that I run
Apple's FileVault encryption on my home directory, and Time Machine has
trouble with this as well: FileVault maps a directory structure to a sparse
disk image, so Time Machine can only back up the image when I log out
(infrequently), and can only roll back the entire image, not its contents.
So, risk (iv): assuming that a transparent piece of technology (on-the-fly
encryption) is also transparent to the other tools that you rely on.

Nick Rothwell / Limited

Only allow 1, 2, and 100 year domain name registration

Sat, 21 Mar 2009 09:13:11 +0800

I purchased a domain name with the longest expiry period available, 10
years. But I am quite sure that at that time I'll be running around like a
chicken with its head cut off.

Any longer than two years and if you're like me or Maxwell Smart, you'll say
"The old 'Domain Name Expiring Soon' reminder spam e-mail trick? I'm not
falling for that again! Ha, and here's another, purporting to be sent from
my very own cron job. Meet the Delete key!"

Any longer than five years and well, the guy who sold you the domain
had better still be in the phone book, because I can't navigate the
renewal interface or find the contact form.

Any longer than ten years well he and his company had better be in
good health because I forgot the password.

Any longer and ... pass the Geritol.

Sure, transfers among users or registration companies would be fine.  Those
are all initiated by people who know what they are doing.

But just as the hardware and software of 10 years ago may likely not be
plugged in, don't expect the user to be either.

Thus domain name registration should only be allowed for 1,2 and 100
years. OK, I mean lifetime.

Re: ESTA visa waiver online (Michaelson, RISKS-25.57)

Chris J Brady <>
Sun, 15 Mar 2009 14:26:19 -0700 (PDT)

There are a few other problems with the ESTA website — which should have
been sorted out well before making the system mandatory prior to travel.

My experiences are that it only takes a few minutes to return an
authorisation - BUT that it takes more than a few minutes to enter all of
the info required. AND the system doesn't seem to remember anything.

Recently I obtained authorisation to visit the USA on Visa Waiver to spend
my hard earned credit crunch tourist dollars there. At an Internet Cafe I
spent an inordinate amount of time entering all of the info. required by

However I could not print anything out at the time. So when I visited a
friend's house who had a printer I opened up the ESTA record only to find
that it had 'forgotten' ALL of my info. and that I had to re-enter it all.

As an airline employee I sometimes have to fly to the USA on 'wait-listed'
standby. If I am denied boarding for my listed flight I can list on the next
one, but then I have to update my APIS record, and also the ESTA record. The
APIS system remembers all my details and it is easy to update them to the
new flight. BUT ESTA does not remember anything and I then have to type ALL
of the info. back in.

It would also help if all of the scam ESTA websites were closed down - they
charge outrageous fees for what is a free service.

Please report problems with the web pages to the maintainer