The RISKS Digest
Volume 6 Issue 16

Wednesday, 27th January 1988

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

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

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o Computer error blamed for diplomatic fiasco
Bernard de Neumann
o A feedback loop in tax preparation algorithms
Lawrence R. Bernstein via PGN
o IBM's meaning of "open" in the abbreviation OSI
Peter Sylvester
o Bank abandons fouled-up computer system
Rodney Hoffman
o Business view of software productivity
Rodney Hoffman
o VMS and login failure logins
Jerry Leichter
o Software Power Switches
Mike Russell
o A risk of using spelling checkers
Andy Freeman
o Re: RISKS in Cable TV?
Andy Goldstein
o Re: Calendar bomb in the Ada language
Jim Purtilo
o Time Bombs in Bank Computers
John McLeod
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Computer error blamed for diplomatic fiasco

Peter G. Neumann <>
Wed 27 Jan 88 17:10:57-PST
Bernard de Neumann of Marconi Research in Chelmsford, England, sent me an
article from the Sunday Telegraph, 10 January 1988:

Computer error causes a diplomatic nightmare
by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris

The French Foreign Ministry's Protocol Office has committed an extraordinary
gaffe by mistakenly inviting the Iranian charge' d'affaires to a party for
diplomats at the Elyse'e Palace.  [...] [France had of course broken ties with
Iran.]  Upon later interrogation, the Quai d'Orsay swore the whole mistake was
due to a computer error and formally apologised — although Mr Mitterand
confided that he suspected the foreign minister, Mr Jean-Bernard Raimond, had
planned the whole thing to try to get back in the good graces of the Iranians.

A feedback loop in tax preparation algorithms

Peter G. Neumann <>
Wed 27 Jan 88 16:55:45-PST
Lawrence R. Bernstein, in an article entitled "The Great Tax-Form Headaches of
'88" (S.F. Chron) Personal Finance section, page 23), has discovered an
apparent recursion that California taxpayers must encounter in completing
their federal and state returns.  The state had a bright idea to peg the state
tax to the federal return.  Thus, you cannot complete your state return until
you have completed your federal Schedule A.  Unfortunately, as in past years,
you cannot complete your federal return until you have completed your state
return (assuming you want to pay the correct taxes).  A nice deadly embrace?
No, just an opportunity for many successive iterations through the state and
federal computations if you want to be precise.

Schedule CA is the new Cal form to itemize fed/state differences.  Details: 

  CA line 20.  Itemized deductions from federal Schedule A, line 26.

  CA line 21.  State, local, and foreign income taxes from federal
               schedule A, lines 5 and 7.

Strict adherence requires repeated iterations through federal schedule A and
state schedule CA until the process converges.  PGN's solution is of course to
declare the state taxes actually paid during 1987 and forget about the
iterative convergence.  Seems like common sense, but apparently not what is
implied if you wish to be accurate.  (I presume LRB finally figured out that
he should overpay the state somewhat during 1987, so he could take that amount
as the [larger] deduction!)

The meaning of "open" in the abbreviation OSI — IBM's version

Peter Sylvester +49 228 303245 <GRZ027%DBNGMD21.BITNET@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>
Wed, 27 Jan 88 15:51 CET
It seems that IBM is not able to understand the meaning of the word
"open" in the phrase "Open systems interconnection".  The company
offers a product called GTMOSI that should help to implement
OSI software for IBM MVS systems.

For more than half a year we have been trying to get a fix for severe
system integrity problems of this product.  Just by reading the
documentation — the product is available only in "object code only"
format — we discovered that something must be wrong:

The documentation says that application programs are able to use highly
privileged functions of the operating system but GTMOSI itself must not be
installed in an authorized library.  This means that at least one part of the
program system must do some trick. It turned out that the guilty party is one
small module (a few hundred bytes in size) running as a supervisor routine.

There is no clue how this supervisor routine identifies its caller, thus we
expected that all users on the same system can write a small program and use
the authorised function.  At that state of investigation (after half an hour
of reading the documentation) we disassembled the routine.

What we found was even worse than what we expected:

1: Any normal user program is able to get full authority of the
   CPU (supervisor state).

   This problem was solved after three months but a authorized
   function namely RACINIT can still be called from any program.

2: The program allows any sort of accounting records (SMF) to be

   This problem is not yet solved. The recent "fixes" reintroduced an
   integrity problem. Again we are able to destroy data in protected

We just gave the program back to IBM so we can no longer follow up on
the problem.  The problem is a small design bug, the program had been
developed as a normal user program and later on some authorized
function was added.  The easiest solution was to "open" the system and
bypass all security features of the operating system.

Peter Sylvester — GMD Bonn

Bank abandons fouled-up computer system

Rodney Hoffman <>
27 Jan 88 09:54:11 PST (Wednesday)
This is a follow-up to the story "$23-million computer banking snafu" in
RISKS-5.16 (25 July 1987).  

That story told how Bank of America had lost $23 million trying to convert to a
new trust accounting and reporting system, a product of Premier Systems Inc. of
Wayne, Pa.  As one trust department official said at the time, "They committed
two cardinal sins.  They took down the old system before the new system was up
and running.  And they were the first big bank to install the system.  A key
rule in computer software is: Never go first."

Now they're giving up:

Edited and excerpted from the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, January 26, 1988:


Bank of America acknowledged Monday that it has abandoned a computerized
accounting program after spending $60 million over several months in an
unsuccessful attempt to fix the system.  Recurring problems meant months of
delays in issuing account statements and a system that was supposed to attract
customers wound up driving away some and angering others.

The system, MasterNet, originally cost $20 million and took five years to
develop.  It was supposed to be up and running last March.  But from the
outset, MasterNet was plagued by computer crashes that shut it down for days at
a time.  Despite extra shifts of workers and consultants, the bank fell three
months behind in delivering account statements to clients. Since the problems
began, customer accounts which may total billions of dollars have left.

Following an internal investigation, two bank executives were forced to resign
in November after being held responsible for the difficulties.  Scrapping the
system is now expected to lead to substantial layoffs.

Most of the bank's $34 billion in institutional trust accounts will be
transferred to subsidiary Seafirst National Bank in Seattle.  Seafirst uses a
IBM-based computerized accounting system devised by SEI Corp. of Wayne, Pa.  It
was designed 15 years ago and was last updated in 1981.  5% of the accounts are
too complicated for that system, and those will be given, not sold, to State
Street Bank of Boston, according to one anonymous source.

    [Also noted by Randy Neff <>]

Business view of software productivity

Rodney Hoffman <>
27 Jan 88 13:06:38 PST (Wednesday)
The 'Wall Street Journal' for Friday, Jan. 22, 1988 ran a page 1 story with the

The story breaks no new ground.  Using mainly examples from the banking and
securities industry, it recites the typical stories:  

  * Programmers spending 80% of their time repairing and updating software.
  * Projects 100% over budget and a year behind schedule.
  * Computer hardware and speed overwhelming programmers.
  * Computer departments with three years backlog.
  * New management changing specs or discarding whole systems.
  * Little correlation between management goals and the way the 
    computer department spends its money. 
  * Program documentation shortcomings.
  * Productivity of 5 to 10 lines of code a day.
  * Unrealized promises of fourth-generation programming languages and
    computer-aided software engineering.

A couple of quotes:

  Ken Hamilton, a senior VP at Manufacturers Hanover, says one programmer 
  labeled the parts of his program using the initials of his friends...
  Once dozens of programmers leave their mark on software as it starts moving
  through its life cycle of 10 to 20 years, it becomes like a dangerous inner
  tube.  "It's been patched and extended and enhanced to the point that it is 
  now a maintenance nightmare," says Michael Bealmear, a partner at Coopers 
  & Lybrand. 

  Some hope for a solution [to low software productivity] is seen in what 
  are called fourth-generation languages... This is like giving reporters 
  something that would let them just write an outline for an article rather
  than having to write the whole thing.  Some users talk of quintupled
  productivity... But the new languages... may work just for one part of a
  project on one type of operating-system software on one type of computer.
  Software that uses them also runs more slowly.... New Jersy's vehicle-
  registration and driver-license operations slowed almost to a halt a few
  years ago, and officials are still sorting through the mess....

  IBM says it has been improving its programmers' productivity about 7% a
  year simply by managing matters more carefully. 

  "It took us a lot of years to get into this mess," says Ray Stanley, a VP
  at American Express Co., "and it's going to take us a lot of years to get
  out of it." 

Wed, 27 Jan 88 12:35 EST
Subject: VMS and login failure logins

Recent notes on these lists have reported a "bug" in VMS, in which a failed
login attempt can cause the username being logged into to be reported at the
system console.  Since it is a common error for a typist to get "out of sync"
with the prompts and enter his password for his username, this can reveal a

The "bug", however, is in a faulty - and foolish - setting of a VMS parameter
at the site involved.  VMS will log the actual username typed in EXACTLY one
case:  When it has decided that an attempted breakin may be in progress at the
terminal.  It so decides when it sees more than L failed login attempts from
the same source with T seconds.  L is normally 5, and T is normally 300.  "The
same source" specifies a physical source - a terminal line or a specific
remote network node - and, optionally, a particular username.

The site at issue here had set L to either 1 or 2 - the message was ambiguous,
since it said "2" but then described a scenario in which the second attempt to
log in caused a message with the username to be logged, which would imply that
L was actually 1.  In any case, both 1 and 2 are absurd choices; they are
presuming a breakin attempt as the result of ONE typo!  Apparently the system
manager at this site doesn't understand the various elements of the VMS login
security system.  For example, if his goal was simply to get a security alarm
on a failed login, he could have done that directly (SET AUDIT/ENABLE:LOGFAIL).
Those alarm messages do not contain the username.

To answer two obvious questions:

    - Why include the username information at all, ever?  It's needed
        sometimes.  If you came in on Monday and found a record of
        several hundred failed attempts to log in, wouldn't you
        think it important to know which accounts had been the
        targets?  Obviously, there are risks in recording this
        information; but there are also risks in NOT recording it.
        VMS tries to balance them by only logging this information
        in situations that are very unlikely to arise accidentally.
        You can change the balance any way you like.  This site had
        unwittingly changed the balance to "record very often".

    - Why log the information to the console, "where everyone can see it",
        rather than only to a log file?  A log file can be altered;
        it's much harder to alter a paper record.  If you really don't
        want security messages to appear on the console, you can
        disable them (REPLY/DISABLE:SECURITY).

        In any case, a site seriously concerned with security must
        provide physical security for its console terminal!

I've seen more harm done by security managers who didn't understand basic
security issues than by almost any other single group.  If you manage security
on a VMS system, read the "Guide to VAX/VMS System Security", CAREFULLY,
before you start screwing around with the VMS security systems.  Then read it
AGAIN, and really understand what you are trying to accomplish and what the
side-effects will be, before you start changing defaults that are not
haphazard but the result of some thought, design, and review.

Software Power Switches

Wed, 27 Jan 88 12:57:58 EST
I was recently using my SHARP EL-506P calculator when it hung up.  I wasn't
   in the middle of an important calculation, so I tried to clear it and
   finally, pressed the OFF button.  But, alas, the OFF button was locked
   along with the rest of the keypad.  So, I popped the back cover off and
   pulled out the batteries, put them back in and I was back in business.
   I'd have to assume that SHARP never expected their calculator code to
   hang so felt that a processor controlled OFF button was fine.  What if
   it had been one of the solar-powered calculators?  I'd have shut off my
   office lights and waited, I suppose.
                                        -Mike Russell

A risk of using spelling checkers

Andy Freeman <ANDY@Sushi.Stanford.EDU>
Wed 27 Jan 88 06:34:56-PST
In RISKS DIGEST 6.15, you wrote:
   [I fixed a spelling error and happened to ask Geoff about it.  He said
   his speller had barfed on that word, so — assuming the word was absent
   from the dictionary — he added the (accidentally, identically incorrectly
   spelled) word.  An interesting risk of using spellers.  PGN]

I think that someone at PARC studied this and discovered that a larger
word list is bad thing for precisely this reason, i.e., English isn't
quite sparse enough.  This work discussed what good sizes were and may
have mentioned contents as well.

Of course, some languages are more sparse (the lexical distance between
words tends to be larger than it is in English) while others are less
sparse.  I've heard that Russian is a sparser language than English
while Arabic is less sparse.

In other words, the risks of using "lookup a word" spelling checkers
are language dependent.

ps - Brian Smith noted than English is just about right for crossword
puzzles in two dimensions while Russian crossword puzzles should have
fewer (or lots of blacked-out squares) and Arabic ones need more to
make the clues necessary for filling in the blanks.  Of course, one
could argue that the point is to fill them in correctly, but English
penalizes wrong words while a 2-d crossword puzzle in Arabic won't.

RE: RISKS in Cable TV?

Andy Goldstein <>
Wed, 27 Jan 88 07:39:58 PST
In reply to [...]'s story of the cable remote box going off...

Save your paranoia for the folks that are really out to get you.  The
fluorescent lamp is the giveaway. A power interruption of a fraction of a
second will shut off a manual-start fluorescent lamp.  There's nothing the
cable control signals can do that would affect power delivery to the lamp.
Look for a loose fuse, a flaky circuit breaker, or flaky wiring. Soon,
before it starts a fire.

Re: Calendar bomb in the Ada language

Jim Purtilo <>
Tue, 26 Jan 88 22:25:14 EST
Douglas Jones (RISKS-6.15) doesn't need to wait until 2100 for more time
surprises.  If he can be patient until fourteen minutes and eight seconds
after 10pm on January 18, 2038, then those of us still running Unix 4.nBSD
on our 32-bit dinosaurs will find our ``gettimeofday'' system call returning
integers that roll over into a very negative number (remember the Unix
convention, time is based on `number of seconds since January 1, 1970').
Other system calls that (correctly or otherwise) take this value as a signed
integer will then tell us we have gone back to the simpler days of the early
20th century (my ctime call tells me this flashback will be to December 13,
1901, at 15:45:52.)

As an aside, it is interesting that, due to apparent errors in how the ctime
call operates on the integer argument in the conversion, I have found at
least one Unix implementation we regularly know and love which predicts this
hackers' millenia will occur 0x45FF seconds later than the correct moment.

Either way, I'm looking forward to it.                                Jim

Time Bombs in Bank Computers (Re: RISKS-6.11)

John McLeod <>
Wed, 27 Jan 88 11:56:13 EST
I was told by a professor recently that Nobody should have any money in a 
bank between december 31 1999 and jan 1 2001.  As there are so many 
cobol programs in existence with a two character year field.

JOHN MCLEOD, Georgia Insitute of Technology, Atlanta Georgia, 30332
uucp: ...!{akgua,allegra,amd,hplabs,ihnp4,seismo,ut-ngp}!gatech!gitpyr!jm7

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