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 72

Wednesday, 8 April 1987


o New kind of computer-technology-related deaths?
o Conrail Sale Funds Transfer
Chuck Weinstock
o Re: "Inherently safe nuclear reactors"
Phil Ngai
o A different RISK? (in-flight control computers)
Peter Ladkin
o Fumes from computers and other electronic appliances
Mark W. Eichin
o VDT related skin cancer?
Chris Koenigsberg
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

New kind of computer-technology-related deaths?

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@CSL.SRI.COM>
Tue 7 Apr 87 23:36:22-PDT
Some strange recent events in England seem computer- and defense-system
related, although in a diffuse and rather mysterious way.  At this point any
commonality among 6 different cases must be considered speculative.  However,
the "pure coincidence" explanation is not too satisfying, and certainly
whets the appetites of conspiracy or collaboration theorists.  The following
is reported here for the RISKS record, awaiting any further clarification.

  August 1986: Vimal Dajibhai, 24, programmer with Marconi Underwater Systems,
  reportedly working on Britain's self-guided torpedo Stingray missile.
  Found dead beneath a suspension bridge.  (No cause identified.)

  October 1986: Ashad Sharif, 26, computer expert with Marconi Defense
  Systems, bizarre death, seemingly suicide.

  January 1987: Richard Pugh, computer design expert, found dead in his home.

  January 1987: Avtar Singh-Gida, 26, disappeared in northern England while
  conducting experiments on submarine warfare equipment.

  22 February 1987: Peter Peapell, 46, metallurgist involved in secret defense
  work, died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  (Wife doubted it was suicide.) 

  30 March 1987: David Sands, 37, computer expert working for a Marconi
  subsidiary on an air force defense system, killed when car crashed into cafe.

The British government claims there is no evidence linking the cases.
However, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd has ordered police involved in these
cases to contact each other.  [Source: SF Chronicle, 6 April 1987]

Conrail Sale Funds Transfer

6 Apr 1987 20:18-EST
From Business Week, April 13, 1987:

The sale of Consolidated Rail Corp. almost blew some fuses at the
Treasury Dept.  Because Treasury's computers can only handle single
transactions of up to $1 billion, underwriters had to break the $1.6
billion from the public offering into two parts before electronically
transferring the funds to the government.  The underwriters, led by
Goldman, Sachs & Co., got a nice chunk of change sent their way too --
$70 million in fees.

[I'm surprised that someone was smart enough to know about the $1
billion problem before it really did "blow a fuse".  Who knows where
the $600,000 million might have ended up!]

Re: "Inherently safe nuclear reactors" (RISKS-4.71)

Phil Ngai <amdcad!phil@decwrl.DEC.COM>
Mon, 6 Apr 87 08:44:03 PST
If I understand correctly, such principles are used outside of the lab.
According to two books I have read (_The Hunt for Red October_, and
_Submarines_), all American subs and many Russian subs operate the same way.
When you draw more power out, the coolant loses heat and moderates neutrons
more effectively, increasing the chances of causing fission, increasing the
heat output. When your power requirements decrease, the coolant heats up,
does not moderate the neutrons as well and the rate of fission goes down.

An ingenious mechanism but not failsafe as the US Navy has implemented
it. One worse case scenario, for example, is a loss of coolant. If
necessary, the reactor can be opened to the sea, an infinite heat
sink.  But by the principles described above, the reaction goes to
full power and may progress beyond the point that the flow of sea
water can handle. There is a good description of this in THFRO. 

Nevertheless, it would seem such principles, when practical, are preferable
to the inherently unstable airframes typified by the F-16 and X-29 fighter
planes. As long as people don't put all their faith in them.

Phil Ngai  +1 408 982 7840  UUCP: {ucbvax,decwrl,hplabs,allegra}!amdcad!phil

A different RISK? (in-flight control computers)

Peter Ladkin <>
Mon, 6 Apr 87 15:24:58 pst
There is a risk to using flight control computers in military aircraft that
I believe hasn't been noted on this list so far. The most relevant instances
are in the F-16, F-18 and F-20 aircraft. Two F-20 aircraft have been lost
while in airshow routines or practices.  The computers are designed to limit
control actuations so that the aircraft do not enter accelerated stalls at
high G-forces.  The control actuations are limited also to approximately 9g
positive, since this is currently the limits that a pilot can withstand
using current equipment, without losing consciousness. The rate of onset of
g forces also contributes to the possibility of losing consciousness.  An
F-20 is capable of attaining at least a 6.2g per second onset rate.

The risk is that a pilot may plan on losing some brain function to
g-forces, without risking that the plane will go out of control in the
maneuver. This possibility is entirely due to the presence of the
flight control computer. It leads pilots to enter maneuvers in which
they do in fact lose consciousness, inadvertently.  The F-20 has
crashed twice in airshow routines, after the same potential 9g pull-up
maneuver, and in the second instance, at Goose Bay, Labrador, the
Canadian equivalent of the NTSB found that the pilot's loss of
conciousness was directly responsible for the crash.

Were the flight control computer not to assure maneuvering within the
envelope in the event of an extreme g maneuver, no pilot would risk
loss of control through impaired function, unless in combat.
One, possibly two F-20s and their pilots have been lost through 
risk-taking while relying on a computer. I understand that pilots
have been lost in the F-16 and F-18 in similar situations.

peter ladkin

Fumes from computers and other electronic appliances

Mark W. Eichin <eichin@ATHENA.MIT.EDU>
Mon, 6 Apr 87 14:46:40 EST
According to the advertisments, the version of the HP-41 that is used on the
Space Shuttle has a different plastic in the case, which will not outgas
under vacuum conditions. Is this a similar problem?
                                                        Mark Eichin

VDT related skin cancer?

Chris Koenigsberg <>
Tue, 7 Apr 87 11:47:02 edt
I just had a small round patch of skin cancer removed from my face, under my
right eye. I am under 30 years old, and the surgeon said it was highly
unusual for someone my age to have such a problem. He said my skin must be
highly sensitive, and I would have to be real careful about exposure to the
sun in the future, using a blocking sunscreen preparation.

But I am not a heavy tanner or beach-goer. I don't even spend all that much
time outdoors. Then the surgeon said, "Oh, you work around computers all day
long, don't you?"..........and I am now faced with the frightening
possibility that my ten years of hacking in close proximity to CRT's is what
gave me skin cancer.

I have seen references to studies about the potential danger from CRT
radiation but I never paid any attention before. Now I'm inclined to look
into the subject - I don't want another skin cancer! The surgeon asked
whether it was possible to get a screen with lead shielding on it.

The cancerous growth has been on my face for at least a year, possibly
longer. I used VT52's starting in 1977 or 78, Foxes, H19's & VT100's, then
primarily a monochrome IBM PC starting in 1981 or 82 for three years. In 1984
I got a Sun 2 workstation, in 1985 I got a pre-release IBM RT. Would the
workstations emit more radiation, from their larger screens, than the PC or
terminals? Are some brands better shielded than others? Would some different
placement angle help lower the dosage hitting my face? 

Christopher Koenigsberg, Andrew Systems Administration, Carnegie-Mellon Univ.

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