The RISKS Digest
Volume 32 Issue 16

Thursday, 30th July 2020

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

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

Contents

Theoretical Physicists Say 90% Chance of Societal Collapse Within Several Decades
VICE
The Panopticon Is Already Here: Chinese AI Creating Axis of Autocracy
The Atlantic
Let a thousand poppies bloom, thanks to cheap solar power
Areu
Hackers broke into real news sites to plant fake stories
WiReD
How Government Entities Use Geolocation Data To Identify Everyone
Shtfplan
Scientists Goofed and Accidentally Created a New Kind of Fish
Popular Mechanics
Apple's CEO Just Made This Extraordinary Statement About the Company's Most Important Product
INC
An unprecedented Nintendo leak turns into a moral dilemma for archivists
The Verge
Hospital lab tests delayed by “Twilight Zone” births
Paul Eggert
In Portland, getting out of jail requires relinquishing constitutional rights
ProPublica
Here's Trump's Plan To Regulate Social Media
Forbes
Trump's … new Postmaster General wants your mail to be late or lost …
NPR
America's Frontlline Doctors?
Gizmodo
Re: When tax prep is free, you may be paying with your privacy
Greg Searle
Re: Long-Lost Computation Dissertation of Unix Pioneer Dennis Ritchie
Bob Wilson
Re: Darwin's tautology?
Henry Baker Bob Wilson Martin Ward
CFIA investigating mysterious shipments of seeds landing in mailboxes
CBC
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Theoretical Physicists Say 90% Chance of Societal Collapse Within Several Decades (VICE)

geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 10:46:20 -1000

Deforestation and rampant resource use is likely to trigger the ‘irreversible collapse’ of human civilization unless we rapidly change course.

Two theoretical physicists specializing in complex systems conclude that global deforestation due to human activities is on track to trigger the irreversible collapse of human civilization within the next two to four decades.

If we continue destroying and degrading the world's forests, Earth will no longer be able to sustain a large human population, according to a peer-reviewed paper <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-63657-6> published this May in Nature Scientific Reports. They say that if the rate of deforestation continues, “all the forests would disappear approximately in 100 to 3200 years.”

“Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down,” they write.

This trajectory would make the collapse of human civilization take place much earlier due to the escalating impacts of deforestation on the planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival—including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation, water cycle regulation, support for natural and human food systems, and homes for countless species.

In the absence of these critical services, “it is highly unlikely to imagine the survival of many species, including ours, on Earth without [forests]. The progressive degradation of the environment due to deforestation would heavily affect human society and consequently the human collapse would start much earlier.”

The paper is written by Dr Gerardo Aquino, a research associate at the Alan Turing Institute in London currently working on political, economic and cultural complex system modeling to predict conflicts; along with Professor Mauro Bologna of the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of Tarapac=C3=A1 in Chile.

Both scientists are career physicists. Aquino has previously conducted research at the Biological Physics Groups at Imperial College, the Max Planck Institute of Complex Systems and the Mathematical Biology group at the University of Surrey.

Their research models current rates of population growth and deforestation as a proxy for resource consumption, to calculate the chance of civilization avoiding catastrophic collapse.

Point of no return. […] https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/akzn5a/theoretical-physicists-say-90-chance-of-societal-collapse-within-several-decades


The Panopticon Is Already Here: Chinese AI Creating Axis of Autocracy (The Atlantic)

geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:22:15 -1000

Xi Jinping is using artificial intelligence to enhance his government's totalitarian control—and he's exporting this technology to regimes around the globe. […] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/china-ai-surveillance/614197/


Let a thousand poppies bloom, thanks to cheap solar power (Areu)

Henry Baker <hbaker1@pipeline.com>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 20:43:12 -0700

Oops! Cheap solar power makes Afghan poppy farmers profitable.

It's nice to see how cheap Chinese solar panels are being used to combat global warming, by replacing diesel.

BTW, a similar-sized solar system installed at my home in California would cost $40,000 instead of $4,000 (including the Taliban tax). Perhaps I need to bring over some Afghan solar installers to the U.S. ?

“farmers began to experiment with solar power as early as 2014, a time when many were experiencing losses on their opium crop. By 2018, there were more than 50,000 solar deepwells, and projections indicate that there were at least 63,000 in 2019.”

“This farmer reported paying the equivalent of US$12,200 to install a solar deepwell, complaining that the recurrent costs on his diesel deepwell had been $1,757 per year for maintenance and diesel.”

“Whereas in 2013, all of those interviewed in Bakwa fueled their deepwells with diesel and none used solar power, by 2017, 68 percent were using solar, and 98 percent of respondents had solar tubewells in 2018.”

“For example, when solar was first introduced, farmers used as many as 60 of the smaller 150 Amp (1.5 metre) panels to power their deepwells. By 2017, there were signs of much larger panels in use, typically 300 Amp (2.5 metre). Thirty of these panels generate more power and allow a greater amount of water to be pumped, an advantage given the falling water table.”

“more recent improvements in technology have also led to integrated systems, including the ability to store solar power in batteries, making solar a more attractive and reliable energy source than ever before. The result is, after an initial outlay of around $5,000 to $7,000 (depending on depth and the number of panels), solar technology can be used with very few recurrent costs (see Table 2).”

“There was consensus of a notable change in the water table since the increase in the uptake of solar technology. For example, while farmers reported that the water table was falling from one-half to one metre per year when diesel was the primary method for pumping ground water, they report that the water table fell by as much as two to three metres per year in 2018. There was little doubt that the fall in the water table was a direct function of the significant uptick in the number of farmers using solar technology.”

https://areu.org.af/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2010E-When-the-Water-Runs-Dry-WB.pdf.pdf


Hackers broke into real news sites to plant fake stories (WiReD)

Monty Solomon <monty@roscom.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:56:26 -0400

A disinfo operation broke into the content management systems of Eastern European media outlets in a campaign to spread misinformation about NATO.

https://www.wired.com/story/hackers-broke-into-real-news-sites-to-plant-fake-stories-anti-nato/


How Government Entities Use Geolocation Data To Identify Everyone (Shtfplan)

geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:23:16 -1000

https://www.shtfplan.com/headline-news/how-government-entities-use-geolocation-data-to-identify-everyone_07302020


Scientists Goofed and Accidentally Created a New Kind of Fish (Popular Mechanics)

geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 10:45:20 -1000

In an effort to save the Russian sturgeon, scientists accidentally created a fish hybrid while breeding the endangered species in captivity.

In a wild turn of events, a new kind of fish has been born in a lab entirely by accident. The sturddlefish is a hybrid between a Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) and an American paddlefish and came into existence by accident. […] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/animals/a33394119/scientists-accidentally-create-hybrid-fish/


Apple's CEO Just Made This Extraordinary Statement About the Company's Most Important Product (INC)

geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:25:15 -1000

Is the App Store a product or a feature?

The biggest tech news this week is the antitrust hearing before Congress that involved the CEOs of four of the largest tech companies in the world, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. I'm generally not someone who thinks these hearings do much to advance the cause of, well, anything beyond scoring political points. <https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/why-congress-is-about-to-ruin-its-best-chance-to-hold-big-tech-companies-accountable.html> <https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/4-things-facebook-google-dont-want-you-know-about-privacy-what-you-should-do.html>

To that end, the format left plenty to be desired, including the fact that more than one of the most powerful tech leaders in the world had technical difficulties with their Cisco WebEx connection. The hearing even stopped at one point to fix a “problem with the connection.” <https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/worried-about-zoom-here-are-some-alternatives.html>

There were plenty of bad questions, this being Congress after all. That doesn't mean that everyone's motivation was wrong, it's just that for the most part, Congress isn't that great at understanding or investigating anything related to technology and the Internet. <https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/the-federal-government-looks-ready-to-pick-a-fight-with-big-tech-heres-why-there-wont-be-any-winners-if-they-do.html>

Still, there was one extraordinary statement from Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, that's worth a deeper look.

The first question for Cook was quite pointed, and remarkably simple: “Apple is the sole decision-maker as to whether an app is made available through the App Store, isn't that correct?” Representative Hank Johnson from Georgia asked.

“Sir … the App Store is a feature of the iPhone much like the camera is, and much like the chip is,” said Cook before Johnson repeated the same question.

Think about that for a moment. Theater aside, that's the most insightful answer I've heard for how Apple views the App Store. I'm not saying it's necessarily a good reason, but it certainly sheds light on why Apple exerts the level of control that it does, including its review process.

To Apple, the App Store is a feature. It isn't a platform for developers, it's a part of the product Apple sells, just like the camera. According to Apple, that justifies the level of control it exerts.

“Because we care so deeply about privacy and security and quality, we do look at every app,” said Cook to another of Johnson's questions. […] https://www.inc.com/jason-aten/apples-ceo-made-this-extraordinary-statement-about-companys-most-controversial-product.html


An unprecedented Nintendo leak turns into a moral dilemma for archivists (The Verge)

Monty Solomon <monty@roscom.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 13:21:52 -0400

For the past week, Nintendo fans have resembled digital archaeologists. Following a massive leak of source code and other internal documents ” appropriately dubbed the gigaleak ” previously unknown details from the company’s biggest games have steadily trickled out. Those poring over the code have uncovered a new Animal Crossing villager, early prototypes for games like Pok√©mon Diamond, cut characters from Star Fox, a very weird Yoshi, and strange titles like a hockey RPG. Perhaps the biggest discovery has been a Luigi character model from Super Mario 64.

From a historical and preservationist perspective, the leak is an incredible find. It’s a rare look into the process and discarded ideas of one of the most influential ” and secretive ” companies in video games. But for those preservationists digging through the data, that excitement is tainted by a moral dilemma. The origins of the code leak are still largely unknown, but it’s likely that it was obtained illegally. That presents a pertinent question: does the source of the leak tarnish all that historians can learn from it? […]

https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/30/21347074/nintendo-gigaleak-controversy-history-preservation-archives


Hospital lab tests delayed by “Twilight Zone” births

Paul Eggert <eggert@cs.ucla.edu>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:14:38 -0700

In a paper published today by the Journal of Applied Laboratory Medicine, Andrew Lyon and collaborators describe a series of crashes in a hospital lab information system that used handheld wireless devices to identify patients in the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital, which opened last year in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. JPCH has pediatric and maternal services, and also has an emergency room. The SoftID-based system first crashed 19 days after installation, and continued to crash roughly every two weeks thereafter. Lab staff reverted to paper procedures during crashes.

To help diagnose the crashes, the hospital's support team sent logs to the SoftID developers, who eventually tracked the problem down to elderly patients with birthdays like April 13, 1941, a day when most of Saskatchewan's clocks sprang forward at midnight due to a daylight-saving time transition. A patient with birthday on that date would have their birth time default to 00:00, a time that did not exist in Saskatoon because the clocks had already been switched to 01:00. The Joda-Time software within SoftID used the IANA time zone database to translate times, and crashed because the local time was invalid.

Lyon et al. suggest several takeaways from this software glitch, including:

My own takeaway for politicians and legislators is:

Lyon AW, Delayen K, Reddekopp R. “No Lab Tests” When You Are Born in The Twilight Zone: A Clinical Informatics Case Report [published online ahead of print, 2020 Jul 30]. J Appl Lab Med. 2020;jfaa080. https://doi.org/10.1093/jalm/jfaa080


In Portland, getting out of jail requires relinquishing constitutional rights (ProPublica)

the keyboard of geoff goodfellow <geoff@iconia.com>
Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:24:16 -1000

A dozen protesters facing federal charges are barred from going to public gatherings as a condition of release from jail—a tactic one expert described as “sort of hilariously unconstitutional.”

Federal authorities are using a new tactic in their battle against protesters in Portland, Oregon: arrest them on offenses as minor as failing to obey an order to get off a sidewalk on federal property—and then tell them they can't protest anymore as a condition for release from jail.

Legal experts describe the move as a blatant violation of the constitutional right to free assembly, but at least 12 protesters arrested in recent weeks have been specifically barred from attending protests or demonstrations as they await trials on federal misdemeanor charges.

“Defendant may not attend any other protests, rallies, assemblies or public gathering in the state of Oregon,” states one Order Setting Conditions of Release for an accused protester, alongside other conditions such as appearing for court dates. The orders are signed by federal magistrate judges.

For other defendants, the restricted area is limited to Portland, where clashes between protesters and federal troops have grown increasingly violent in recent weeks. In at least two cases, there are no geographic restrictions; one release document instructs, “Do not participate in any protests, demonstrations, rallies, assemblies while this case is pending.”

Protesters who have agreed to stay away from further demonstrations say they felt forced to accept those terms to get out of jail. […] https://www.propublica.org/article/defendant-shall-not-attend-protests-in-portland-getting-out-of-jail-requires-relinquishing-constitutional-rights


Here's Trump's Plan To Regulate Social Media (Forbes)

<farber@keio.jp>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 10:24:01 +0900

https://www.forbes.com/sites/robpegoraro/2020/07/28/heres-trumps-plan-to-regulate-social-media/


Trump's … new Postmaster General wants your mail to be late or lost (NPR)

Lauren Weinstein <lauren@vortex.com>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 11:35:06 -0700

https://www.npr.org/2020/07/29/894799516/pending-postal-service-changes-could-delay-mail-and-deliveries-advocates-warn?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=news


America's Frontlline Doctors? (Gizmodo)

“Peter G. Neumann” <neumann@csl.sri.com>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 11:06:33 PDT

https://gizmodo.com/who-are-americas-frontline-doctors-the-pro-trump-pro-1844528900


Re: When tax prep is free, you may be paying with your privacy (RISKS-32.11)

Greg Searle <greg.searle1@gmail.com>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 15:25:17 -0400

The IRS guarantees that you can file your taxes for free if you are under a certain income level. You can do it directly through the IRS or through another service. These services will really attempt to “recommend” a product that is more “suitable” for you (that they charge a fee for), but they can't charge you at all for the free option.

https://www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free


Re: Long-Lost Computation Dissertation of Unix Pioneer Dennis Ritchie (RISKS-32.15?)

Bob Wilson <wilson@math.wisc.edu>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 17:33:00 -0500

When I submitted my dissertation (1969), we were required not just to submit a hard copy to the university (UW-Madison) but also to sign a form giving permission for it to be copied and recorded at a national repository: I think that was maintained at the University of Michigan. We had to give them permission to use it, under our copyright prerogatives.

Quite a few people did not like being required to “give away” some of their copyright ownership. (It did not make too much difference for folks like me, in mathematics, but in many of the humanities subjects people at least hoped to turn their theses into books they could sell, where copyright ownership could really matter.) We were told that the requirement to sign that form was essentially universal in U.S. graduate education, mandatory before your degree would be granted. So I am surprised it was not required at Harvard!


Re: Darwin's tautology? (Ward, RISKS-32.15)

Henry Baker <hbaker1@pipeline.com>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 13:42:10 -0700

The evolution(!) of terminology which converts meaningful statements into tautologies happens all the time in math and science, and is almost always a 'good thing'(tm), as it signifies 'progress'.

The terms ‘survival’ and 'fit, fitter, fittest' preceded Darwin and 'evolution', so there was a bit of carving and sanding required to ‘fit’ these terms into Darwin's evolutionary theory. However, now that Darwin's evolutionary theory has been mostly accepted, the terms ‘survival’ and 'fit, fitter, fittest' are now (re)defined in terms of this evolutionary theory; hence ‘survival of the fittest’ has now become a tautology.

Ditto in the world of mathematics. Prior to Cardano, Fermat, Pascal and Laplace, ‘probability’ was a very elusive term. Modern probability theory (due to Kolmogorov) has been so successful that the notion of ‘probability’ is now identical to the mathematical definition, so many previously meaningful statements about probability have been converted into tautologies.

Ditto in the engineering world. Prior to Claude Shannon, an ‘error’ in communications was an imprecise term; however, post-Shannon, it's almost impossible to discuss non-Shannon-like 'errors', e.g., errors that correlate widely separated bits/characters, because the definition of the terms have changed to make Shannon-like errors the easiest to discuss.

All this is progress, because it converts PhD theses into undergraduate exercises; thence to high school exercises; and finally into definitions. We now ‘see’ the world using terminology and definitions that make previously difficult concepts blindingly obvious. Only those in the transition period old enough to remember the previous confusion will fully appreciate the clarity produced by these new ways of perceiving.


Re: Darwin's tautology? (Ward, RISKS-32.15)

Bob Wilson <wilson@math.wisc.edu>
Tue, 28 Jul 2020 17:39:47 -0500

The comment that

  > “The conclusion is implicit in the premises”: but this is just a
  > property of every valid mathematical argument.
correctly tells us that any mathematical proof amounts to discarding information, or at best copying it over! I have always loved that. (It does not say that proofs are useless: Presumably they lay clear(er) why something might have been obvious!)


Re: Darwin's tautology? (Baker, RISKS-32.15?)

Martin Ward <martin@gkc.org.uk>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 12:00:12 +0100
> The evolution(!) of terminology which converts meaningful statements into
> tautologies happens all the time in math and science, and is almost always
> a 'good thing'(tm), as it signifies 'progress'.

This is true, as long as you are not implying that the meaningful statement becomes less meaningful when it is “converted” into a tautology.

Fermat's Last Theorem was always a meaningful statement, and since Andrew Wile proved it we now know it is a tautology: but still just as meaningful. The statement “God exists” is (with a suitably precise definition of “God”) a meaningful statement, and Plantinga's Ontological Argument uses Model Logic to prove that it is a tautology: it is true in all possible worlds. But it is still just as meaningful, if not even more so!


CFIA investigating mysterious shipments of seeds landing in mailboxes (CBC)

“Matthew Kruk” <mkrukg@gmail.com>
Wed, 29 Jul 2020 17:10:38 -0600

U.S. residents are not the only ones: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/warning-about-unauthorized-seeds-in-mail-1.5667883

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