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 65

Thursday, 19 March 1987


o Largest computer crime loss in history?
Gary Kremen
o Health hazards of poorly placed CRT screens
Gregory Sandell
o Re: Computerized telephone sales pitch ...
Robert Frankston
o Re: phone key-pad speed vs accuracy
Andrew Klossner
o ATM experience
Joe Herman
o Computerized Telemarketing
Rob Aitken
o Submission impossible?
o Risk at Crown Books
Christopher Garrigues
o Altitude Encoders... expensive for some
Herb Lin
o RTD Ghost Story: a Phantom Warehouse
Eric Nickell
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

 , sdcrdcf!decvax!ucbvax!CSL.SRI.COM!risks
Subject: Largest computer crime loss in history?
Date: Tue, 17 Mar 87 07:50:01 -0800

According to page 22 of March 16th's Wall Street Journal, Volkswagen may
have lost over 259 million dollars due to foreign-exchange contract fraud.
According to the article, the fraud involved "the erasure of computer
data and tampering with computer programs."

health hazards of poorly placed CRT screens

Gregory Sandell <>
Thu, 19 Mar 87 10:55:09 EST
      I want to share an experience that I am having with a health problem
connected with my work.  I am a programmer and spend a lot of time at a CRT.
I am not technology-phobic, but I have been enlightened by my chiropractor
that CRTs can be dangerous.  Many CRTs in my work situations are placed low
enough so that my neck must be tilted at a *very slight* angle.  I have been
experiencing neck stiffness on and off over the last two
frequently bothers me for as much as a week at a time.  My chiropractor
tells me that holding my head in a fixed position at that angle --- even as
slight an angle as it is --- for a long time is probably causing that
stiffness.  It so happens that I must hold my head at nearly the same angle
when I play piano and look at music on the music rack of the piano.  I am
changing my behavior quite a bit; I have raised the CRT on my main
workstation so that it is at eye-level; if the computer I am working at
can't be adjusted that way, I look down with my eyes instead of using my
neck.  For piano playing, I tape the music up higher on the rack, or just
memorize things in order to avoid holding my head in that deadly fixed
position.  I think that it is helping.

    If this doesn't afflict you, then that's great.  But I would guess
that in general the position of CRTs in most work areas are placed with
complete disregard for healthy neck position, and as a result many
programmers are in danger of getting this reaction.  Maybe 10 years from now
we'll see photographs of computer work environments and experience the same
kind of dismay we get when we see photographs of turn-of-the-century
sweatshops.  Think of it this way:  would you want to watch *television*
with your neck at that angle (not to mention with the screen so close to
your face)?

    [RISKS has explored this topic several times.  The evidence is mounting
    that there are hazards in using terminals.  Among my acquaintances, I have
    recently run across an orthomolecular physician who after setting up
    a new color display and working on it for 16 hours straight discovered
    serious physical damage to one of his eyes.  Another person (with serious
    candida albicans problems, and thus greatly increased sensitivity to
    his environment) finds a strong sensitivity to fumes from his PC --
    possibly from the power supply.  Headaches, backaches, neckaches, and
    certain internal problems are also linked or aggravated by extensive
    terminal use.  So, perhaps in the future terminals will come with a
    warning: computers may be habit forming and hazardous to your health.  PGN]

Re: Computerized telephone sales pitch meets emergency

Tue, 17 Mar 87 06:46 EST
          broadcast number
To:  itm!brent%gatech.UUX%ncar.csnet@RELAY.CS.NET
cc:  risks@CSL.SRI.COM

While I find computerized sales pitches obnoxious, I find it amazing that
the Atlanta cable TV system would have a dial-in number that overrides the
system without a password required.  It is very easy to misdial a phone
number.  But, as has been a theme of my earlier letters, the phone system
represents a misunderstood technology.  A secret phone number itself does
protect against certain classes of malicious attack, but is very vulnerable
to accidents.  Given the number of wrong numbers I get on my phone, I'm
surprised that Atlanta has not already been treated to confused callers
broadcasting to the city.

   [There are indeed many risks associated with unlisted phone services.
   A variety of existing services offered are accessible either accidentally 
   or intentionally from unexpected sources.  (Steve Jobs' latest endeavor
   also has a whole bunch of associated risks.)  The phone service that lets
   you call your home computer and then punch some more digits that turn 
   on the oven or unlock a door for the delivery man is one example.  The
   phone service of having your pacemaker battery checked remotely by a
   computer that interrogates it in a diagnostic mode is another.  Believing 
   that an unlisted phone number will not get called is of course utter
   folly.  My unlisted home computer number gets about a call-a-day's worth
   of wrong numbers.  The scanning phone solicitors are extremely agressive.
   In the Atlanta case we again have an example of a risk that was not
   anticipated, and discovered only after it was accidentally triggered.  PGN]

phone key-pad speed vs accuracy

Andrew Klossner <>
Wed, 18 Mar 87 12:46:52 PST
My new unlisted phone number contains two adjacent '9's.  Just about all of
the wrong numbers that I get are caused by somebody's '9' key
double-clicking. I'm giving serious consideration to changing to a phone
number with no repeated digit.

     [I hesitated before including this one, but then decided there is an 
     interesting problem in coding theory.  Perhaps phone companies could
     offer an eight-digit number for those seeking a redundant digit to
     reduce wrong numbers.  But, the algorithm would have to be carefully
     chosen to detect as many transpositions, accidentally repeated digits,
     and adjacent (with respect to the keypad and the rotary dial) digits as
     possible.  I would subscribe at a reasonable price.  PGN]

ATM experience

Joseph I. Herman (Joe) <DZOEY@UMD2.UMD.EDU>
Thu, 19 Mar 87 19:13:06 EST
A friend of mine deposited her paycheck using the bank's ATM machine.  When
she signed her paycheck, she also wrote the account number on the back.
Unfortunately, she interchanged two numbers, so the check was deposited in
some random person's account.  The ATM machine gives her a receipt that
basically says that her deposit was accepted, so she went off and assumed
that the check was deposited correctly.  Well, of course the bank didn't
bother to verify that the account number written on the back of the check
matched either the account number printed on the ATM slip (included with
deposits) or the account name.  They just blindly took her word for it.

After quite a hassle and a couple of bounced checks, things were straightened
out, but it took quite a bit of time and much embarrassment.

I can think of two problems here.  The redundancy of having a name
associated with your account and the further redundancy of having the ATM
print a special deposit slip to be included with each deposit is pretty
useless if people aren't going to check them.  The other problem is it
introduces an incentive to *not* put your account number on the back of your
check, and instead depend on the ATM slip to furnish this information, thus
increasing the dependance on automation.

By the way, the bank stated that it was not at fault here.  I'm not so sure,
after all, it should have detected the discrepancy.
                                                          Joe Herman

Computerized Telemarketing

Rob Aitken <aitken%noah.arc.cdn%ubc.csnet@RELAY.CS.NET>
18 Mar 87 1:50 -0800
Regarding the recent discussion of the RISKS of computers and telephones:
Several years ago, when I lived in Victoria B.C., the local telephone sales
organizations (e.g. "Buy the XXX vacuum cleaner") purchased a computer which
called up various numbers to make its pitch. The problem with the system was
that it would not release the line, even if the potential customer hung up.
In one case, a mother was prevented from calling for an ambulance while her
child was choking. Fortunately, the child survived. Soon after, laws were
passed requiring the dial-up computers to hang up when the customer did.

Rob Aitken, Alberta Research Council, Calgary AB

      [We've had several very similar cases in the past.
      This one is included for the record.  PGN]

Submission impossible?

Tue 17 Mar 87 10:42:32-PST
In the cyclic process of deciding on how much to include in RISKS, I have
once again been turning up the threshold due to an increase in somewhat
marginal material.  I realize that the masthead guidelines are in EVERY
issue, and therefore perhaps only new readers pay attention to them.  On the
other hand, I believe that the RISKS Forum serves a very useful purpose in
tolerating open discussion, even when some of it is not quite accurate — we
all learn from the ensuing discussion.  Therefore I hate to stifle openness.
But I also get complaints when RISKS issues get very long or very frequent
-- and besides it is tough on me trying to keep up with all of you when you
get into FLOOD MODE on a popular issue.  So, try to stick to the guidelines.

By the way, I received messages from ONLY TWO of you questioning my command
of the English (american) language in the masthead item in RISKS-4.63:

 ++++  NOTE: We are starting to mine out old loads rather heavily    ++++
 ++++  of late.  PLEASE try to be MORE CONCISE and LESS REPETITIOUS! ++++

The use of "load" instead of "lode" was quite intentional (I try not to
explain or even highlight all of my puns), and might even be interpreted by
some of you as an editorial comment.  

Risk at Crown Books

Christopher Garrigues <7thSon@STONY-BROOK.SCRC.Symbolics.COM>
Wed, 18 Mar 87 09:51 EST
When I was in Junior High School (about a decade ago), I was working in the
school library when they instituted the magnetic tag approach to security.
Well, naturally, those of us who worked in the library, immediately started
trying to determine how to defeat the system.  It didn't take us long to
discover that a hard rap on the spine of a book against a desk or table
sufficiently scrambled the magnetic elements that the book would pass
through the detector.  Because the system is so easy to defeat, it's
actually easier to steal books now because you can be reasonably sure that
the bookstore employees have enough trust in their system not to watch what
people carry in and out.

           [Computer/technology related?  Well, it is a fine example of 
           the dangers of trusting a technological solution...  PGN]

Altitude Encoders... expensive for some

Wed, 18 Mar 1987 20:09 EST
    From Ronald J Wanttaja:
    Ann Landers has a right to her opinion.  But what do I say when someone
    mentions that "Ann Landers says we gotta ban the little aircraft?"

You explain to them why banning little aircraft is not the solution.  I
agree that it is difficult, but telling them to go away (as I am sometimes
inclined to do myself) is a sure way to polarize the community.

    Similarly technical decisions are best left to those technically qualified.

Perhaps.  But when the "unqualified" (such as Congressmen [...]) are ultimately
the ones who make the decisions, you ignore them at your own peril.

RTD Ghost Story: a Phantom Warehouse

Wed, 18 Mar 87 08:21:21 PST
LOS ANGELES TIMES, March 18, 1987

   The financially troubled Southern California Rapid Transit District
has created a phantom warehouse to "store" more than $1 million in lost,
stolen or misplaced bus parts, RTD employees have told The Times.
   The dummy warehouse, as some RTD employees also all it, was devised
nearly a year ago and exists only in the RTD's computers — a kind of
accounting limbo for lost materials that at other transit agencies are
promptly acknowledged and written off as losses.  RTD workers charted
that the ghost warehouse, labeled "SD14", is symptomatic of management
efforts to hide mistakes with little regard for public cost.
   "It makes [RTD middle managers] look good to higher-ups ... .  You're
not losing as much money on paper," said one warehouse employee familiar
with the system.
   John Richeson, RTD's assistant general manager, the district's
overseer of inventory, said he learned of the non-existent warehouse
only last week as a result of inquiries by The Times.  However, he
defended the bookkeeping maneuver as a good idea for handling "inventory
that is not in the location it is supposed to be."
   RTD managers acknowledged that the non-existent warehouse is an
unusual bookkeeping procedure, but they insisted that it is neither
improper nor deceptive.  Richeson said that to characterize the district
as hiding its inability to control inventory is "not the proper
   The list of missing parts in the phantom warehouse has grown from
zero nearly a year ago to more that 500,000 items worth $1.28 million in
bus and office supplies on hand.  RTD officials said that hunting down
the missing supplies and trying to determine how much has been stolen
and how much has been misplaced has been a low priority because the
search would be too expensive and time consuming.
   "The dollar value certainly is not substantial in terms of the
overall inventory or the overall volume of things we are doing,"
Richeson said.
   However, the fuzzy status of materials moved to the non-existent
stock area creates other problems.  It is now more difficult for transit
police investigators to know quickly when parts are truly missing and
possibly stolen, said RTD Police Chief James Burgess.
   "That's one of the problems we do encounter with this system," he
said.  [...]
   RTD managers inserted the phantom warehouse into the district records
after a systemwide inventory of bus parts was taken last April.  The
inventory supposedly produced a complete tally of RTD bus and office
supplies, from which accurate computer records of parts on hand were
produced for the first time.
   However, several sources familiar with warehouse operations said the
inventory served mainly to reveal the lax controls on parts and
   "It was a complete disaster," said one, explaining that a lot of
material listed in inventories could not be found.
   In other instances, RTD officials acknowledged, inventories that were
on hand may have been overvalued.
   "The inventory was meaningless," said another source who participated
in the inventory   [...]
   Almost immediately after the inventory adjustments were made to the
books, parts began disappearing again, causing new problems.
   A computer system that is supposed to automatically replenish parts
when they are needed began refusing to place some orders.  Since
disappearing parts were not being removed from inventory lists, the
computer showed the district had those parts on hand.  But stock clerks
checking the shelves were unable to find them.
   Faced with a parts-purchasing bottleneck that could sideline badly
needed buses, district employees began making expensive rush orders for
special overnight deliveries from manufacturers.
   Partly in response to this new set of inventory problems, RTD
management placed the phantom warehouse on its books.  They listed it as
SD14, the kind of computer label used to designate an actual warehouse
at a specific location.  SD14 was inserted in a column of real warehouse
listings, with nothing other than its number to set it apart, for
example, from SD10, the computer designation for a storeroom at a bus
yard near downtown Los Angeles.

   Wayward parts were thereafter electronically "shipped" to the new
warehouse, freeing the central computer system to reorder parts to keep
the system's 2,800 buses running.
   In addition, the fake storage area has eased the pressure on managers
to account for missing parts.  In the past year, they no longer have had
to "write off" all the parts they could not find and were able to
minimize unexplained losses in their budgets.
   RTD officials insist that the chief purpose of the phantom warehouse
was to ensure that a detailed investigation of missing materials could
be made.  Maynard Walters, RTD director of purchasing who authorized
creation of the ghost storage depot, recalled telling his staff, "I
don't want it [written off as a loss].  I want it put in an account and
held there so I can have a report on why it's not there."
   However, after 11 months, officials say they have not had the
manpower to track down all the errant parts and supplies assigned to
   "We have a certain amount of personnel that we can spend finding all
of these things...," said James Connolly, the RTD's materials manager,
who set up the fictitious warehouse.
   Gradually, SD14 grew until it had three or four times the parts and
inventory value of other satellite stockrooms.

   So real did SD14 appear, that for months, warehouse clerks and
mechanics unsuccessfully tried to retrieve needed parts from it — and
even got into arguments with higher-ups over why supplies stored there
could not be delivered.
   "I couldn't figure out what it was," one RTD warehouse worker said.
"I'd look on the computer screen [for parts].  It would say nobody has
them but SD14.  I'd say why can't we get them from SD14.  [Eventually, I
was told] SD14 doesn't exist."
   As time went on, the phantom storehouse became a running joke among
warehouse workers.  The instant any part was misplaced, someone would
suggest, "look in SD14," employees said   [...]

   As part of a sophisticated parts-tracking system at the new facility,
computer-guided robots will store and retrieve all parts, keeping an
accurate, running inventory as they go, RTD officials contend.
   "It's just like night and day in terms of the ability to control
things," Richeson said.
   Other RTD employees are less confident.  They point to management
shake-ups and earlier highly touted state-of-the-art systems that have
not solved inventory control problems.
   One RTD worker, referring to the new high-tech warehouse, said,
"There'll be problems there we haven't even anticipated, that will be
magnified tenfold."

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