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 60

Wednesday 13 April 1988


o Quebec's Centralized Filing System
Glen Matthews
o State taxes on a new computer system
Steven McBride
o Feynman & the Challenger disaster
Wm. Randolph Franklin and Willie Smith
o Risks of computerized editing?
o New risk to computer users identified -- VCRs
Gary Chapman
o Pilotless Combat Planes
Rodney Hoffman
o April Fool once more
Piet Beertema
o Re: Macintosh off switch
Mike Linnig
o Diving
Rich Sands
o Re: Discrimination and careless arguments
Les Earnest
o Discrimination -- unmuddling the muddlies
David Thomasson
o What was the question? (John
J.G.) Mainwaring
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Quebec's Centralized Filing System

Wed, 13 Apr 88 10:34:39 EST
The following article appeared in the Montreal Gazette on Tueday, April 13
1988. In light of previous scandals about information being obtained about
individuals from government files for commercial purposes, I'd be leery of this
one. (Interesting that the law in 1984 giving citizens the right to know what
information is being held on them, also makes it easier to abuse the system.)


Quebecers should know that government departments and agencies have millions
of files (read: entries! gm) holding information about them, the Access to
Information Commission said yesterday. The commission was launching a 635-page
directory of 489 government databanks containing more than 20 million files.
The databanks, half of which are computerized, are held by 26 departments and
98 agencies. Another 25 agencies told the commission they had no files to
reveal (??? gm). The department of the solicitor-general refused to make public
provincial police files. The Tourism and Income Security departments also
refused to answer all the commission's questions.

Interim chairman Therese Giroux said these departments may face legal action if
they don't co-operate. "We think the time has come to be maybe a little more
radical", she said. There are still pockets of resistance to the law which, in
1984 (appropriately! gm), gave citizens the right to know what files are being
held on them.

The standard file on a Quebecer will contain: name, date of birth, sex, ethnic
origin, marital status, social insurance number, medicare number, hair colour,
eye colour, height and physical handicaps, certificates and diplomas received,
medical background, traffic violations, religious affiliation. In addition, the
government knows what kind of car you drive, how many Quebec Savings Bonds you
own, whether you have been treated for a tumor, whether you have had a fire,
and your standing as a Hydro-Quebec customer. There are 3.5 million files on
Quebecers who attended school in the province.

The point of the directory is to allow Quebecers easy access to a list of the
kinds of files kept so that they can ask to see their own files and correct any
inaccuracies. Giroux said it is every citizen's duty to know what kind of
information is held by the government, and those who feel concerned should
check their files. Communications Minister Richard French told reporters only a
small number of Quebecers will want to do so, but they should be free to do so.

State taxes on a new computer system

Steven McBride <shamus@BOEING.COM>
Wed, 13 Apr 88 09:14:45 pdt
Paraphrasing from a 15 March article by Charles Trentelman
  in the Ogden Standard-Examiner.

Ira Menacker turned in his state income tax form expecting to receive a
$268 refund. Instead, he received a notice saying he and his wife owed
Utah $23,254,712.74 -- taxes of $20,769,223.02, plus interest of
$2,485,479.72, less credit of $268.

Lee Shaw, spokesman for the State Tax Commission said the state was using a new
computer system to process taxes and "a lot of things we are doing on our
income-tax system are being done for the first time."  The problem with the
Menacker return was caused by a "data entry error, an editing error compounded
by the fact that the system itself didn't kick that (the return) out on an
error code." Mr Shaw also said "a computer does not make a small error, a
computer will really make a glorious mistake."

Feynman & the Challenger disaster

wrf%juliet@CSV.RPI.EDU <Wm. Randolph Franklin>
13 Apr 88 10:14:28 EDT (Wed)
There is an excellent article on the investigation into the Challenger disaster
by Richard Feynman in the Feb Physics Today.  Given the picture of parts of
NASA he paints, it's a wonder anything flew.  However, he did praise the
subcontractors doing the computers - unlike at Morton Thiokol, the engineers
and the managers communicated.

    [Those of you who wish to and can FTP 34,000 characters, FTP KL,
    ..., contributed earlier by Willie Smith.  I was hoping to do a summary of
    it, but at this rate may never get to it...  PGN]

Risks of computerized editing?

99700000 <haynes@ucscc.UCSC.EDU>
Wed, 13 Apr 88 15:23:06 PDT
I guess either Associated Press or the Santa Cruz Sentinel is using a computer
to eliminate sexist language from their news stories.  A story this morning
about a railroad accident said the train was being driven by the firefighter.
Took me a moment there to translate firefighter back to fireman, which doesn't
translate correctly to firefighter if you're talking about a locomotive.

New risk to computer users identified -- VCRs

Gary Chapman <>
Wed, 13 Apr 88 09:15:28 PDT
Letitia Baldridge, manners maven, quoted in the April 13 issue of the San
Francisco Chronicle:

VCRs!  Manners are so bad because people look at computer screens all day
and VCRs all night. . . .You go to their homes as a guest, and you end up
asking:  Where are the hangers?  Where are the tissues?  Where are the guest
towels?  And where, where are those pretty little soaps?

Pilotless Combat Planes

Rodney Hoffman <>
13 Apr 88 12:38:47 PDT (Wednesday)
Edited and excerpted from the 'Los Angeles Times', Sunday, April 10, 1988, Part
I, page 1:

             By Melissa Healy

DAYTON, Ohio - Capt. Gary G. Presuhn, an Air Force navigator who helps fly some
of the nation's hottest new jets off the desert runways of Edwards Air Force
Base, is sitting inside a simulated aircraft cockpit in a medical research
laboratory here, wearing a bizarre, bug-eyed helmet that makes him look like
Darth Vader and feel like Luke Skywalker [pictured].  Wires trail away from the
helmet to an electronic device that monitors his eye movements.  Presuhn, 33,
is peering into the future of aerial warfare.  And curiously, he's not in it.

If scientists, engineers and dreamers here at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
can harness technology to their vision of the future, computers one day will do
all or most of what Presuhn does now, flying in the second seat of supersonic
military planes and providing crucial assistance to the pilot.  Eventually,
scientists hope, the same computers might even take over the duties of
Presuhn's partner, [the pilot].

Presuhn's high-tech helmet, a sort of wrap-around instrument panel that tells
its wearer everything from his plane's altitude to the approach of enemy
missiles, is concrete evidence that -- after years of resistance by tradition
-minded brass -- the American military is beginning to accept the idea of
replacing scarce and vulnerable men with thinking machines....

Smart machines hold enormous promise, experts say.  They will be able to do
many of the things humans now do, thereby helping the military cope with
expected shortages of trained personnel.  They will be able to do some things
no human could do, increasing the capability and punch of American forces.  And
they will permit U.S. commanders to order up valuable but -- for human pilots
-- suicidal battlefield assignments without concern for casualties....

The nation's military leaders and defense technologists have stepped up efforts
to move men out of the cockpits -- and out of danger -- and leave the driving
to machines....  [F]liers like Presuhn, who at age 33 belongs to the first
generation of the video era, are more philosophical [than, for example, the
Mercury astronauts] about their eventual replacement, this time by computer
software.  "My seat's disappearing anyway," Presuhn said.  "In my life, it's
not going away.  But eventually, I can see it's going to be gone."

.... Today, ... the forces that drive projects such as "Super Cockpit" --
including a budget-minded and casualty-sensitive Congress -- are beginning to
overwhelm many, if not all, of the traditional objections [to reducing the role
of men in military systems].  As a result, the Pentagon is forging ahead with
several unmanned aircraft projects and with research efforts that threaten to
make navigators and pilots dispensable....

"I see unmanned vehicles for many roles as a definite trend," Donald
Fredericksen, the Defense Department's tactical warfare chief, has told
Congress.  "The technology is there.  It's clear that we can use them for a lot
of missions that are too dangerous for men or too expensive to do with manned
aircraft."  The Defense Department is expected to pour some $6.5 billion into
designing and building pilotless aircraft by 1995, according to one industry

[Discussion of the SCI "pilot's associate" project...]  Program officials speak
of designing a "phantom crew" to aid tomorrow's pilots.  One day, [researchers]
at Wright-Patterson envision a world of air combat in which a single pilot
aloft in his command plane will direct the attacks of an army of "robotic
wingmen," who know no fear and leave no widows.

[Discussion of the soon-to-be-deployed "Tacit Rainbow," a kamikaze drone, and
of Boeing's "Seek Spinner" and of the long history of Air Force resistance to
removing men from the cockpit....]

In some cases, the state of technology has made the move toward pilotless
aircraft not only possible but almost necessary.  Engineers are finding that
the greatest constraint to making tomorrow's fighter jets faster and more agile
is neither physics nor technology.  It is the ability of the man in the cockpit
to withstand the physical punishment of higher-performance flight.... In the
long run, some scientists believe pilots may become unjustified obstacles to
the progress of maneuverability.

For now, however, few believe that even Wright-Patterson's magic can replace
the judgment of a seasoned pilot when it comes to executing a last-minute
change of plan or escaping a cleverly-designed trap. "The pilot bring to the
system an adaptability, a skill and a cunning that we cannot reproduce with
machines," [Thomas A.] Furness [one of the lead engineers in the "Super
Cockpit" project in which Presuhn is a subject] said.  "I'm not saying the
pilot has to be in the airplane, but he has to be in the loop."

April Fool once more

Piet Beertema <mcvax!!piet@uunet.UU.NET>
Wed, 13 Apr 88 11:39:09 +0100
Oops, I was wrong, it wasn't "kremvax" that was in the Path: of
"Gene"'s April Fool warning message, but (a misspelling of) the
other site I invented. Here's the Path: as I got it here:

   Path: mcvax!uunet!seismo!sundc!pitstop!sun!moscvax!perdue!spaf
                         ^     ^
                 [Piet's trick from 1984 was rigging the mailer tables
                 so that when you ANSWERed the Chernenko message, HE
                 got the reply.  This one was less subtle.  PGN]

RE: Macintosh off switch

Mike Linnig <>
Wed, 13 Apr 88 18:10 CDT
> Subject: Virus Distribution
> I've heard rumors that the Macintosh OFF switch only pretends to power down, 
> so maybe this won't work.  Is this true?  If so, why does apple do that?
> Peter G. Rose

The Macintosh off switch certainly cuts power.  I've heard that the older
LISA computers had an auto-restart feature that allowed a program to set a
hardware widget to turn the LISA back on a a predetermined time.  I'd bet
though that memory was truely erased by the powerdown (but not the hard
                        Mike Linnig, Texas Instruments


Rich Sands <rms@gubba.SPDCC.COM>
13 Apr 88 14:01:52 GMT
Both the Orca EDGE and Skinny Dipper dive computers go through an extensive
self-test when turned on, including activating every possible message
display and indicator.  The instruction manuals tell you what the self-test
should look like, so you can verify that the displays are properly going
through their paces.  They also recalibrate themselves to the surface air
pressure every time they are powered on, and warn you if you are diving at
too high an altitude for their nitrogen absorption model to be accurate. The
liability issues in selling such a device are obvious, and Orca has really
done their homework, as far as I can see. If at any time you exceed the
computer's operating ranges, it really starts flashing warnings at you.

There are other computers on the market, but I have no direct experience
with them. The problems that RISKS readers are identifying may exist in
other products, I don't know.

rms                     Compuserve: 71360,1067  BIX: richsands 
UUCP: {ihnp4,harvard,husc6,linus,ima,bbn,m2c}!spdcc!gubba!rms

Re: Discrimination and careless arguments

Les Earnest <LES@SAIL.Stanford.EDU>
13 Apr 88 1756 PDT
At the risk of going further afield from the purpose of Comp.risks, I wish
to prolong the discussion of "race."  In Vol. 6, #58, David Thomasson
seems to argue that I made careless arguments in the "mongrel" stories,
then he puts forth the following argument.
> . . . Explaining why he refused to reveal his race on a license
> application, Earnest argued as follows (I paraphrase):  (1) Race has
> nothing to do with driving a car. Therefore, (2) asking for an applicant's
> race isn't justifiable. My point was not about ideal motor vehicle
> bureaus; it was about logic: (2) doesn't follow from (1). The suppressed
> premise is: (1A) If X has nothing to do with driving a car, then X cannot
> justifiably be put on a license application. *If* once accepts that
> premise, then most of the information on drivers licenses is unjustified:
> name, address, color of eyes, color of hair, etc. And this, of course, is
> patent silliness.

Yes, that _is_ patent silliness.  The things that Mr. Thomasson lists at the
end are useful identification properties.  "Race" is not, unless you are a

Further on, Thomasson says:
> Asking for race on a driver's license is, I suggest, justified because it
> is useful in identifying the licensee.

Thomasson apparently believes that everyone belongs to some race and that
that race is determinable.  He probably also believes that all dogs belong
to some breed.  I would like to accompany him to a city pound somewhere and
listen to him identify all the mutts there.

In the 1960s, the Commonwealth of Virginia included in the category of
"Colored" everyone who they called Negro, Indian (both American and most
people from India), other dark-skinned groups, and anyone who was
detectably a mixture of any of these with some other "race."  Was this a
useful identification property?  I think not.

Color of skin and color of hair _are_ useful for identification and may
reasonably be included on a drivers license.  I know a lady with very dark
skin and bright orange hair.  What race would you say she belongs to?  I
saw a number of comely ladies in Amsterdam awhile back with pale skin and
bright green hair.  How should we classify them?

For that matter, if I claim that I am a Martian, can you prove I am wrong?
You probably don't even know what a Martian looks like.
                                                              Les Earnest

    [There is considerable redundancy among this and the following two
    messages, but I would rather not do burn any abridgements.  PGN]

Discrimination -- unmuddling the muddlies

Wed, 13 Apr 88 16:49:09 EDT
A brief attempt to clear up more muddled argument: Regarding my distinction
between *gathering* information (such as race on a driver's license) and
*misusing* such information, John Lavagnino writes:

>Can we believe in this separation after reading the accounts of actual
>practice that appear in RISKS?

I don't know whether you *can* believe in it, but you *should*, since
they are manifestly separate actions. One who gathers information about
race (or about anything else under the sun) ought not to be presumed
guilty of misusing it, since the misuse comes later if at all.

>And can we believe in Thomasson's (unstated) assumption that the
>various bureaus of our government have no connection with each other?

I didn't state this assumption because I never made it. If
a motor vehicles bureau gave its information to another bureau, this would
not be an obvious misuse of that information by either agency. In fact
there are practical reasons for government agencies
to share certain information (*if* both are justified in gathering it in
the first place). The alternative is for each agency to operate independently,
needlessly repeating the same information-gathering process -- the sort of
wastrel bureaucratic busywork that we so often complain about. Government
bureaus do and should have some connections. Evidently, Lavagnino sees
something heinous in this (as I do not) because he is unable to see that
gathering information is not the same thing as misusing it.

>Thomasson's conclusion is further based on his (unstated) opinion that
>no objection to governmental activities may be made without irrefutable
>evidence of misbehavior -- which is a reasonable opinion, but it's an
>opinion all the same, and there are others on the matter, such as
>Earnest's. This method amounts to throwing out all the evidence and
>assuming that you haven't thereby distorted the problem you set out to study.

Three points: (1) Again, I didn't state such an opinion, because I don't hold
it. (2) Note that Lavagnino's critical method leans heavily on attributing
positions to me that I neither stated nor implied, and then attacking those --
a classic Straw Man approach. (3) The view wrongly attributed to me is that we
should proceed by "throwing out all the evidence," etc. Lavagnino says that
this is "reasonable." I initially set out to show that arguments in RISKS
sometimes are terribly muddled. I rest my case.

What was the question?

13 Apr 88 16:59:00 EDT
It seems to me that most of the replies to Les Earnest on the race question on
forms miss the point entirely.  Of course he objects to the question as
irrelevant, but claims that an even bigger problem is being able to answer the
question at all, and cites the unverifiable possibility of middle eastern
ancestry in his own case.  This clearly casts doubt on the usefulness of the
race question for any purpose, not just its relevance to driving. It is an
uncertain identifying attribute, even though it often works.  Most people can
name a colour for their eyes which most other people will accept.  Hair colour
tends to be more vague, and not everyone chooses to keep the colour the same at
all times.  Race can be a highly unsatisfactory descriptive attribute.  At the
time of the story, in the 60's, most people assumed that anyone with any negro
ancestry should give their race as 'negro'.  This meant that by no means
everyone described as negro was immediately visually identifiable as such.
There have been people who claimed to be able to immediately recognize members
of the Jewish 'race' on sight, but at least that does not seem to have been
attempted with driving licences anywhere in the US.  As a side light, it is
interesting to note a sexist bias in racial prejudice.  If you believe an
attribute has negative connotations, you will believe it is inherited from
either the mother or the father.  If it is neutral or positive, it is assumed
to be inherited from the father alone (eg nationality on census forms).  The
risk inherent in this is the assumption that because a question can be
formulated, the answers will be of any value, especially when they come from a
broad spectrum of respondants.  It is closely related to the 'NO PLATE/NOPLATE'
item in recent issues of the RISKS forum, and is probably the root cause of my
own irrational reaction to forms created by bodies such as the IRS.

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