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 6 Issue 34

Tuesday 1 March 1988


o Leap-year madness
Charles Fineman via Chris Koenigsberg
Michael Wagner
o Risks of Leap Years and Dumb Digital Watches
Mark Brader
o Computer Programmed in Predjudice
Brian Randell
o Lousy Lazy UNIX Linkers
Joe Dellinger
o Slippery slopes and probabilities
David Thomasson
Barry Shein
o Risks of Believing in Technology
Scott E. Preece
o Protection of system configuration...
James Ford
o Stealing Passwords on Telenet
Christopher Jewell
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Fwd: Leap year madness

Chris Koenigsberg <>
Mon, 29 Feb 88 18:18:59 -0500 (EST)
  Date: 29 Feb 88 14:21:36 EST
  From: Charles.Fineman@H.GP.CS.CMU.EDU
  Subject: Leap year madness
  To: BBoard.Maintainer@A.CS.CMU.EDU
  Attention: unix-forum bboard

  All you folks who created (or extended)  accounts using ADM today and
  used the default expiration date will most likely find that you cannot 
  use those accounts. The default expiration date is one year from the
  creation (extention) date which, in today's case, is a nonexistent date.
  Hence, the date interpreter chokes on it and it looks to ADM as if your
  account has expired.

  To resolve this, all you have to do is change the expiration date.

        Charlie Fineman

  P.S. Now that's what I call a PHASE OF THE MOON error!!!

Re: Leap year madness [In response to the above]

Michael Wagner +49 228 303 245 <WAGNER%DBNGMD21.BITNET@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>
Tue, 01 Mar 88 15:56 CET
  Out of interest, I spent some time thinking about how many design
  mistakes are exposed by this example.  I find the following:

  1. Two different representations/algorithms for dates, (the 'date
     interpreter', whatever that is, and the 'account creator') with
     different handling for unusual cases.

  2. At least one representation allows illegal dates to be
     expressed i.e. the set of dates is not closed under the
     operation of addition (perhaps both allow this; not clear).

  3. The treatment of an illegal date *in the future* as an expired
     date i.e. in the past.

Risks of Leap Years and Dumb Digital Watches

Mark Brader <>
Mon, 29 Feb 88 19:53:55 EST
All right now -- how many people reading this *haven't yet realized* that
their watches have to be set back 1 day, because they went from February 28
directly to March 1?

Mark Brader, SoftQuad Inc., Toronto, utzoo!sq!msb,


Brian Randell <>
Mon, 29 Feb 88 15:42:44 WET DST
Just over a year ago I reported in RISKS-4.27 on the news stories here in the
UK about a discriminatory computerized student selection system. This has hit
the headlines again, now that the Commission for Racial Equality has issued a
report on the affair. Since the original posting attracted some interest, I
thought that the RISKS readership would like to see the attached news story,
from The Guardian of 25 February 1988 (reprinted without permission), since it
indicates how officialdom has, at last, reacted.


       Andrew Veitch on how a don built racial and sexual bias into selection 
       methods for a south London medical school

   The next college found breaking the race laws by discriminating against
black people will be prosecuted, senior Commission for Racial Equality
officials warned yesterday.
   After publication of the commission's report on race and sex discrimination
at the St. George's medical school, south London, a senior source said: "We
will make an example of the next one."
   The decision by the Education Secretary, Mr. Kenneth Baker, to instruct
universities and polytechnics to monitor the numbers of non-Caucasian students
is seen as a half measure. The commission's officials sat they need to know
who is rejected, and why. For that, they need a race question on university
application forms.
   St George's was caught, officials admit, only because the attitudes of its
selectors in years gone by were enshrined in a computer program: that program
deliberately downgraded non-Caucasians and women.
   Few, if any, other colleges operate computerized selection programmes, so
discrimination will be far harder, if not impossible, to prove.
   Three-quarters of St George's 2,500 applicants a year are rejected by the
academic assessors without being interviewed. About 70 per cent of those who
get interviews are offered places. So the first weeding-out is crucial.
   It is also time-consuming, which is why Dr Geoffrey Franglen, a former
vice-dean of St George's and himself an assessor, set out to develop a program
which, in his words, would "mimic the behaviour of the human assessors." The
result, by 1980, was a program which matched the assessors' decisions in 90-95
per cent of cases.
   The confidential report of the medical school's internal inquiry into the
affair, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, shows how the
program worked, and who knew about it.
   Candidates were classified as Caucasian or non-Caucasian on the basis of
their names, or photographs if they were to hand. They were also classified by
   Being non-Caucasian, and or a women, resulted in a lower grade on the
interview scale: simply having a non-European name could take 15 points off an
applicant's score. Sex had less effect: on average, being female took no more
than three points off the score.
   That was enough, the Commission found in its investigation, to deprive 60
candidates a year of the interviews for which they should have qualified.
   The working of Dr Franglen's program was considered by an internal working
party in 1982 and again in 1985. The senior academics who constituted those
working parties which [sic] should have known - and probably did know - that
race and sex were used as factors in selecting candidates, says the St
George's inquiry team, which is headed by a solicitor, Mr Peter Gerrard.
   In fact, since the program mimicked the previous human assessors, it is
probable that discrimination occurred before the program was introduced, the
report says.
   Mr William Evans, the admissions officer, told the inquiry that he became
aware that the program discriminated against women and had a "bias against
non-Caucasians" in 1984.
   He had told the then academic registrar, Mr Jon Bursey. Mr Bursey said the
information should be kept confidential. He was particularly concerned lest
one of the consultants who took an interest in racial affairs, Dr Joe Collier,
should hear about it.
   Mr Bursey left without mentioning it to his successor, Dr Gareth Jones.
All went quiet until 1985 when a second working party considered the program.
   Dr Franglen was asked to describe its workings. He justified the weighting
it gave against non-Caucasians and women, and gave the working party the
impression that it had only a marginal effect on who was selected.
   Nevertheless, the working party recommended that the program be simplified
and rewritten. The school's academic board accepted this recommendation, but
nothing was done about it.
   The inquiry report specifically blames the then dean, Dr Richard West, for
"failing to ensure the task was carried out."
   By March 1986, Dr Jones, the academic registrar, was aware that the program
discriminated on grounds of race and sex. He did not take the matter to the
dean, he said, because he thought the dean already knew about it.
   In November 1986, Dr Collier discovered, by accident, that the program was
weighted. He wrote to the dean. Dr West asked Mr Evans to run a few cases
through the program. When he saw the effect, he immediately stopped its use."

Lousy Lazy UNIX Linkers

Joe Dellinger <joe@hanauma.STANFORD.EDU>
Mon, 29 Feb 88 18:27:44 pst
    This started with a very strange bug: Some C graphics software of
mine would unexpectedly shift the plot origin now and then while plotting.
Eventually it was discovered the the problem occurred whenever FORTRAN
formatted I/O was used. Finally it turned out that both our graphics
software library and the system FORTRAN I/O runtime library use a global
variable called "pc". In the graphics routines it is a structure pointer,
in the fortran routines it is an integer.
    Now, I had always thought that you can only actually declare a
global variable in one place... everywhere else it should be an external.
Otherwise how can you know something is amiss when you link together 2
different libraries that might happen to clash in their choice of global
variable names?
    Silly me... it turns out that UNIX linkers indeed WILL allow you
to declare something in more than one place, and indeed will then happily
assign them to the same memory location, even if they are of completely
incompatible types. And if you don't happen to have the source code for one
of the libraries that gets linked in, such as the FORTRAN runtime library,
get overlayed in this way...
    It makes me wonder how often this is happening and I DON'T catch
it, because the bugs it causes are not so "graphic". This seems to me to
be a very serious "RISK" of using the UNIX linker. Now I wonder if they
also used my favorite variable names, "ii", "jj", and "kk"...?

Slippery slopes and probabilities

Mon, 29 Feb 88 19:01:00 EST
>[As has been noted frequently in RISKS, (1) probabilities are irrelevant
>when it is YOUR life that is lost;...

This is true, but beside the point I was making. The writer who warned of the
risks of homing devices for finding stolen cars was clearly concerned about
public-policy considerations (and there is no risk of injury with the homing
device); the warning about the back-seat driver device could be about public
policy or individual prudence. My comment about slippery-slope arguments
concerns public policy, and I should have made that clear. In that context,
probabilities of risk are quite relevant. They are, in fact, also relevant to
personal decisions that involve risk to life or limb. The bracketed comment
above refers to life that is LOST. What we are concerned about here is life
and other values that are RISKED. And I see no way to assess risks without
appealing to probabilities.

Re: Slippery slopes and the legitimatization of illegitimacy

Barry Shein <>
Tue, 1 Mar 88 02:38:40 EST
I have friend who believes firmly all probabilities are 50/50, either
things happen or they don't...

Basically the first argument was that picking some event E and saying
that because p(E)>0 then we must worry (W) about E, this leads to:

    W = p(E)

This is the slippery slope argument, that all p is equal thus all W
must be equally considered.

The next argument by PGN says that there is a cost C which must be
considered, so we get:

    W = C*p(E)

and postulate there is some risk threshold T above which W seems
worthy of concern. The slippery slope argument remains possible, if we
assume p to be constant for all E then the C is irrelevant.  In fact,
the slippery slopist is forever inflating C in the listener's mind (or
relies upon a preconception of high C.)

Worse, there is a reversibility factor R (one major feature which
seems to distinguish humans from other animals is the former's ability
to carefully reverse its behavior.) Thus we might reformulate with
something like:

    W = C*p(E) - C*p(R)

or, the Worry of a Risk is the probability of one's fate corrected for
the cost less the probability of reversing that event also corrected
for the original cost.

But human behavior is not quite so simple! We must factor in the PS(t)
which of course is Pain and Suffering as a function of Time, and adjust
this for yet another cost, call it $. We thus arrive at the following

    W = C*p(E) - C*p(R) + $*PS(t)

This allows us to distinguish the $1000 phone bill which is cleared up
in one (hopefully inexpensive) call to their office versus one which
takes many calls. One could perhaps argue that these are two different
events and therefore should simply be factored into the first term
(C*p(E)), that is, the probability and cost of an easily solved phone
bill problem vs a difficult one should be distinguished.

I am quite certain that for many readers the risk of encountering such
an argument while casually perusing this digest has already exceeded
their threshold for suffering and reversibility is not possible, so I
will leave it at that.

    -Barry Shein, Boston University

Risks of Believing in Technology (Re: RISKS-6.33)

Scott E. Preece <preece%fang@gswd-vms.Gould.COM>
Tue, 1 Mar 88 09:06:50 CST
  From: Matt Bishop <> 
  > Anyone who's seen a teenager struggle to multiply 314 and 512 by hand, then
  give up and reach for a calculator, knows just what I mean.

Well...yes and no.  There are any number of skills which our ancestors
possessed (and HAD to possess to survive) in which I have little or no
interest.  The definition of "basic skills" changes over time.  I would think
multiplication was still something everyone should know (if for no other
reason than that it helps build the notions you need for learning more
complicated things).  Driving (in the sense of guiding a horse pulling a
wagon) is no longer a "basic skill" -- do you care?  It hardly seems that an
occasionally heard collision warning is going to allow us to lose the ability
to avoid running into things.

I'd be interested in knowing if the FAA has any research on the number of
accidents avoided because of stall warnings and ground-approach warnings as
opposed to the number happening because the relied-upon warning failed to

scott preece  gould/csd - urbana  uucp: ihnp4!uiucdcs!ccvaxa!preece

Protection of system configuration...

Tue, 01 Mar 88 16:15:38 CST
  > such as by making it impossible to delete, rename or amend files ......
  > Does anyone know of software which would provide a simple solution to
  > this problem?
  > Tom Patterson, Department of Applied Mathematics & Theroetical Physics

There is a program called PC-LOCK (*NOT* the PD version) which is made by
Johnson Computer Systems.  We have installed it on some hard disks here and
have had no problems at all.

     You have to boot with drive "C" and enter the proper password to gain
access.  There are 5 possible passwords you can set/use....1 administrator
password and 4 user passwords.  IF you try and boot from drive "A", you
cannot access drive "C".  Norton Adv, PC-Tools 4.11, Explorer and Ultra-
Utilities all return the phrase "Invalid drive...".

I'm not sure exactly what it does, but when you run FDISK, it shows the drive
as being a non-DOS disk.  Perhaps it moves the FATs somewhere else and
redirects DOS with its .SYS file.....

You can also turn off CTRL-BRK permantly, which will allow you to use your
favorite menu programs!!  Here is the address which was supplied with the

PC-LOCK, Johnson Computer Systems, 20 Dinwiddie Place, Newport News VA 23602

It has been *extremely* effective in stopping people from "borrowing" the
CAD programs placed on the drive.

NOTE1: If the program(s) being used allow you to SHELL to dos, you will need
       to examine the file, look for SHELL=C:\COMMAND.COM, and remove it.

NOTE2: All standard disclaimers.....

Stealing Passwords on Telenet

Mon Feb 29 17:55:03 1988
This is summarized from a recent discussion in a non-Usenet conference
of the Portal system.

Several subscribers who use PC Pursuit to access Portal reported that
they got a message "CONNECT FROM ..." when dialing Telenet, followed by
someone at the other node simulating a login sequence, so that subscribers
would supply their name and password.  It appears that the problem is
known to the GTE Telenet folks, and that they are working on plugging the
security hole, but that they don't like to talk about it.  The problem is 
by no means limited to PC Pursuit: users of GTE's TeleMail system and other
services which ride on Telenet are also said to be vulnerable.  It appears
that GTE management is permitting its concern for the public image of its
network to increase the risk to its customers from this fundamentally
technical problem: besides plugging the leak, they should get the word out
to every customer, so as to reduce the risk in the mean time.  The CYA
response does nothing for my confidence in Telenet.

It is claimed that this is the work of people who are want only to
explore and map Telenet, and have no interest in doing anything harmful
with the information which they acquire, but I doubt that any comp.risks
reader wants to trust the benevolence of such crackers.

The insecurity of the UUCP mail network and Usenet is notorious (forged
articles etc), but we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that
commercial networks are technically and administratively immune to such
problems (other than those inherent in users' tendencies to pick
guessable passwords, of course).  This problem with Telenet is a reminder
that centrally managed commercial networks can be just as vulnerable as
the voluntary, anarchic world of UUCP.

In the particular case in point, anyone who gets that "CONNECT FROM"
message on Telenet should immediately log off: most of all, don't type
your password.  Also, if your password starts to echo when it should
be blind, disconnect immediately.  If you use a robot, such as a logon
script for a personal computer comm program, to access anything through
Telenet late at night when the rates are low and you are asleep, make
sure that the robot can recognize and respond to the CONNECT FROM
condition.  If your robot cannot protect you from this condition, DON'T

The risks of a network in which a dial-up node can force a direct
connection with another dial-up node, without the explicit agreement of
the second node, appear so obvious as to make me wonder how the Telenet
folks could have made such as design decision.  Surely if node 1 asks 
to be connected to node 2, node 2 should get a dialog asking whether
or not it wants to accept the connection.

Comp.risks readers can perform a public service by notifying computer-
naive potential victims, such as company executives using TeleMail, about
the problem.  The risk of mailing, e.g., unencrypted corporate business
plans, to a masquerading recipient is clear.

Christopher Jewell  |  |  sun!!chrisj

    [This is an old war-horse that recurs every now and then, and is often
    thought of as a joke -- even though it can often be easily perpetrated. 
    It is the reason for the notion of the TRUSTED PATH in the National
    Computer Security Center's ORANGE BOOK set of criteria for trusted systems.
    Authentication is needed in BOTH directions -- the system would like
    some assurance that you are whom you claim to be, and you would like 
    the same about the system itself.  

    Once again, we need to remind our less experienced readers that the
    security/privacy/integrity issues are not easy, despite various press
    reports that (1) there is no problem, and (2) even if there were a 
    problem, it would be easy to fix.  Solutions range from not sharing
    anything to running a simple checking program.   But don't forget
    that we are dealing with people (on both sides of the fence), and
    that substantially changes the nature of the problems.  PGN]

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