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 4 Issue 10

Wednesday, 12 November 1986


o Extreme computer risks in British business
Lindsay F. Marshall
o Alabama election snafu caused by programmer
o Looping mailer strikes again
Brian Reid
Nancy Leveson
o Lost files on Bitnet
Niall Mansfield
o VOA car testing
Bill Janssen
o Re: Aftermath of the Big Bang (apology)
Robert Stroud
o Re: The Future of English
T. H. Crowley [both of them]
o Word-processors Not a Risk
Ralph Johnson
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Extreme computer risks in British business

"Lindsay F. Marshall" <>
Tue, 11 Nov 86 09:54:27 gmt
FIRMS 'SUICIDAL' ON COMPUTERS, by Peter Large (From The Guardian 10/11/86)
                                                               [10 Nov 86?]

British business suffers nearly 30 computer disasters a year, involving
firms in direct losses running into millions, according to a survey
published today. 

Datasolve, the computer software arm of Thorn EMI, questioned the UK's
biggest 500 accountancy firms and found that 28 per cent of them had
encountered computer disasters among their clients in the past five
years; and at least 67 per cent of those breakdowns were avoidable. 

These are not cases of computer fraud or interference by young computer
"hackers": they are cases of accidental loss of data, through system
breakdowns or operator errors, and through fire and flood.  In some
cases firms have lost all records of staff pay, orders, and contracts. 

Mr.  Chris Wood, chief executive of Datasolve, said: "The survey shows
that many firms are risking commercial suicide.  Figures from the US
indicate that 90 per cent of firms suffering a major computer disaster
subsequently went out of business within 18 months. 

"The only reason we are not seeing the same statistics here is because
UK firms are currently less computerised than their US counterparts."

The Datasolve report says that small and medium-sized firms, operating
micro- and mini-computers without full-time professional staff, are most at
risk.  The accountants questioned blamed ignorance, lack of resources, and
perceived cost for the unnecessary risks that firms are taking.

Most of the accountants said that firms needed to spend between 1 and 4 per
cent of their annual computer budgets on stand-by computers and other
protection methods.  A third of them suggested that auditors should warn
shareholders if a company's protection measures are inadequate.

Alabama election snafu caused by programmer

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@CSL.SRI.COM>
Wed 12 Nov 86 12:55:00-PST
Election results in Mobile, Alabama, were delayed for several hours due to
"computer problems".  According to a report on WKRG-TV in Mobile, the
problem was caused by a programmer improperly opening an output file,
causing the vote totals to be sent to the bit bucket.  The results were not
lost, they just could not be printed out until the bug was found and fixed.
The delay in reporting caused the outcome of the Senate race to be
undetermined for quite some time.  (Mobile is the hometown of Sen. Denton,
who was narrowly re-elected.)  [I hope this is a correct version.  I had
several earlier fragmentary versions...]

             [If you suspect any hanky-panky, be sure to (re)read the previous 
             messages on RISKS on this subject, including RISKS-2.42.  PGN]

Looping mailer strikes again

Brian Reid <reid@decwrl.DEC.COM>
11 Nov 1986 2314-PST (Tuesday)
On November 7, Andrew Walker of Nottingham University sent me a mail
message. I received 72 copies of the message on November 7, the first
arriving at 09:53 PST and the last arriving at 17:22 PST. Two days
later on November 9 I got 21 more copies.  Note that all 93 copies of
this message (1890 characters) were sent across the Atlantic separately.

The guilty party is the PDP-11/44 mail relay computer at University
College, London. Most outgoing mail from the UK to the ARPAnet passes
through this machine. I have not contacted the management of the
machine to find out what the story was.

I think that this supports Lindsay's claim that he didn't do it....

Looping mailer strikes again

Nancy Leveson <nancy@ICSD.UCI.EDU>
11 Nov 86 08:51:49 PST (Tue)
You requested any information about another similar incident.  Well, on
7 Nov. 86 at 14:12:47 gmt I received 10 identical copies of a message
from Tom Anderson. Nancy

Lost files on Bitnet (cf RISKS-4.9)

Tue 11 Nov 86 14:41:34 N
Losing files on Bitnet through IBM machines going down is very common. It
seems RSCS holds its store and forward files in a spooling area which is
often lost if the machine crashes. We get several such losses reported every
month, and it's not uncommon for thousands of files to be lost.

It's hard to see why this shouldn't be fairly easy to fix:
it would certainly improve net reliability, and  without any
research on guaranteed-service protocols.

VOA car testing

Bill Janssen <>
Tue, 11 Nov 86 10:19:13 CST
                        [This is the tail-end of a private exchange 
                        regarding testing, e.g., for interference...  PGN]

Unfortunately, that's not as singular an example as one might hope.
Characterization of electrical noise under most industrial circumstances
is very poor.  Many microprocessor-based systems are tested with a
"showering arc generator", which is a bunch of relays and coils and
loops of wire hooked up to motor driven interrupters.  The tester turns
on the showering arc generator, places the item to be tested near it,
and sees if it can perform its standard functions.  This is thought to
be a "worst case" test, though in fact it's not at all clear that it is.


Re: Aftermath of the Big Bang (apology)

Robert Stroud <>
Tue, 11 Nov 86 19:09:07 gmt
In my previous article about the Big Bang I said that one of the biggest
outstanding problems was a backlog of 55,000 unmatched trade reports at the
end of the first week, which had increased to 59,000 by the following
Tuesday. In an attempt to put this figure into perspective, I unwisely added
that "a semi-informed guess" would be that this represented about 30% of the
weeks trading.

"Semi-informed" was meant to indicate that it was not totally random, but
resulted from some data and some reasoning on my part. Unfortunately, both
turn out to be wrong - the correct figure is 15% (I think!). My hesitation
arises from having to perform two unit conversions - it said in yesterday's
Independent (10th November) that "10,250 represents about 2.5% of the average
number [of bargains] in a normal account". That figure is presumably correct,
but there are two transactions in a bargain, and two weeks in an account,
(at least, I *think* there are two weeks in an account...).

Anyway, please accept my humble apologies for dropping a factor of two due
to neglecting the transactions/bargain conversion. (It was a factor of four
until I remembered the weeks/account figure!)

The good news is that the number was down to 20,500 by Saturday morning
and should be cleared by Thursday morning - the deadline being Friday night.
I don't think it could have been 59,000 last Tuesday in that case, so maybe
the problem has been not just keeping records of transactions but keeping
records of the records! One of the difficulties in sorting things out has been
that some of the computer systems did not allow the records of transactions
to be altered (presumably to prevent fraud and preserve an audit trail).

Robert Stroud, Computing Laboratory, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
UUCP ...!ukc!cheviot!robert

Re: The Future of English (RISKS DIGEST 4.8)

Mon, 10 Nov 86 22:36:33 PST
The word processor is leading to a decay of the English language, and now we
discover that the typewriter leads to a similar decay.  Who knows what evils
were caused by the fountain pen and the quill?  Well, you can forget all
that because the problem can be traced back much farther.

A quotation from Plato:

   ``Said Thoth to the King of Egypt, `This invention, O King, will make the
   Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of
   memory and wisdom that I have discovered,' but the king was not convinced
   and feared that the invention of writing would impair the memory instead of
   improving it and that the people would read without understanding.''

So, papyrus started this long, slow tumble into chaos.  What say you we
start a lobby to bring back the clay tablet?

[Note:  I don't mean to belittle the arguments that warn of the dangers of
word processing.  Too little thought goes into much of what I read (and
write).  I just thought this echo from the past brought a new perspective to
the discussion.

The quotation comes from p. 134 of "Understanding Computers" by
Thomas Crowley (my father)]

        [... and coincidentally, my first boss at Bell Labs in 1960!  PGN]

Word-processors Not a Risk

Ralph Johnson <>
Tue, 11 Nov 86 10:16:00 CST
I do not believe that word-processors damage the quality of writing.
Good writing occurs only when the document is revised and reworked
extensively.  If we write a document first with pen and then type it,
we will get at least one chance to revise it.  The problem is with
those who create a document at the keyboard but never read or revise it.
However, even revising a document once is not enough to gain high quality.
It takes many, many revisions to create a high-quality document, for which
word-processors are invaluable.  This applies to software as well as to
English, though few programmers seem to realize it.

Ralph Johnson

"Master, how many times should I revise my documents?  Up to seven times?"
"I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."

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