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.*

 - A new paper <https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4425/11/7/753> in *Genes*
   describes how two different types of fish (sturgeon and paddlefish) bred
   to create hybrid offspring.

 - The creation of these hybrid *sturddlefish* was accidental and occurred
   in a lab in Hungary while researchers were trying to breed Russian
   sturgeons in captivity because the fish is endangered (with some sturgeon
   species being critically endangered.)
   <https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/sturgeon/>

     [Sturdlefish?  or Padgeon if it nibbles at morsels?  PGN]

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 Pokémon 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:

* A DST transition can disrupt hospital operations long after the transition.

* Hospital software and hardware systems should be validated by test-patient
  records with birth dates on daylight-saving transitions.

My own takeaway for politicians and legislators is:

* Do not mess with the clock at midnight.

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

  [This one is really amazing.  PGN]


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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