The RISKS Digest
Volume 7 Issue 24

Monday, 18th July 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 The IRS Illinois Experiment
Patrick A. Townson
o Aegis testing data withheld from Congress
Gary Chapman
o "Man in the loop"
Rodney Hoffman
o Aegis
Charles Daffinger
o Lightning strikes... (again?)
Don Mac Phee
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

The IRS Illinois Experiment

Sun Jul 17 14:01:44 1988
The Internal Revenue Service says it wants to make it faster and easier for
taxpayers to get their refunds in the future, so it is experimenting with
a new approach in Illinois during the 1989 tax paying season.

As a resident of Illinois, you will be able to file your tax return
electronically, by hooking into the IRS computer to complete your tax return
and provide the necessary information on your income, taxes withheld, etc.

The IRS says if this experiment goes as planned, it will speed processing of
tax returns by fifty percent, allowing refunds to be paid within three weeks
instead of the usual five or six weeks. As to be expected, it is not all
altruism on the part of the Internal Revenue Service.

A return sent to the IRS electronically costs about $9 to process. A paper
return mailed to the agency costs $72.50. The reduced labor costs will save
the revenuers about $200 million over the next ten years, primarily through
reduced labor costs, filing space and paper work.

The agency will still have some paper mail to process, since even the returns
filed electronically will require a signature form to be mailed in along with
W-2 forms, but the work will be cut down drastically from the current system.

The IRS believes the lure of a faster refund, which can be deposited directly
into a financial institution, will motivate taxpayers to file earlier. If
their theory is correct, and if the "Illinois Experiment" works out as planned,
the electronic filing program will be expanded nationwide over the next 2-3

Taking advantage of the electronic option will cost taxpayers in other ways,
however. The computer link will only be available through tax preparation
services. The IRS believes that offering access to their computers to all
personal computer users would cause them 'some concerns about hackers and
phreakers getting after us, making trouble for us..', coordinator of the
new program in the Chicago IRS offices, Regina Nixon said.

She said the agency is looking at ways to allow personal computer users to
plug directly into the system while at the same time keeping the system
secure, but nothing has been decided yet. She said one possibility will be
that terminals will be provided in IRS offices where the public can come
in, sit down and work, under the 'guidance' (watchful eye, perhaps?) of
IRS employees.

Linda Jordan, of H&R Block, the national tax preparation service based in
Kansas City said they will probably charge an additional fee of $18-30
per electronic filing to cover their own costs for the program. She noted
that the popularity of the program at first would depend in large part on
the amount of the refund and how quickly the taxpayer was interested in
getting it.

The new electronic filing program will only be for people with refunds
coming. Those folks who owe money will still have to pay the old-fashioned
way, by writing a check which is enclosed with a paper return. Taxpayers
in Illinois can begin using this new option later this year as they begin
the process of reporting their 1988 income. The new electronic system is
expected to receive its biggest workout during the first quarter of 1989,
and the results of that test will detirmine to what extent it should be
promoted nationally.

Dixon, of the IRS office, said they had not yet figured out a way to induce
people to file early when they had to pay additional money; but one thing
under consideration is to combine the electronic filing approach with a
slight discount to the taxpayer who authorizes an automatic draft from their
bank account to pay the taxes due.

Now dear Risks Readers: Can't you *just see* and *just imagine* the several
possibilities for corruption here on the part of the tax preparation services
and others? The theory that it will be more efficient sounds great, but oh
what havoc it will cause if the 'wrong people' start diddling the computers!!

Aegis testing data withheld from Congress

Gary Chapman <>
Mon, 18 Jul 88 09:35:15 PDT
Defense Week reports that an unclassified report of the General Accounting
Office (GAO) reveals that the Navy withheld testing problems of the Aegis
air defense system from the Congress.  "Personnel and Aegis equipment were
not subjected to targets or tactics that would be found in combat," and the
reports sent to the Congress by the Navy omitted "unfavorable test results."
The GAO said that the favorable assessment of the Aegis system by John
Krings, the head of testing for the Pentagon, "was not supported by the
evidence."  The Navy report to the Congress, says the GAO, "potentially led
Congress to fund weapons systems whose true operational effectiveness and
suitability are unknown."

Gary Chapman, Executive Director, 
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

"Man in the loop"

Rodney Hoffman <>
18 Jul 88 09:08:10 PDT (Monday)
The July 18 Los Angeles Times carries an op-ed piece by Peter D. Zimmerman, a
physicist who is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace and director of its Project on SDI Technology and Policy:


  [In the Iranian Airbus shootdown,] the computers aboard ship use 
  artificial intelligence programs to unscramble the torrent of infor-
  mation  pouring from the phased array radars.  These computers decided 
  that the incoming Airbus was most probably a hostile aircraft, told 
  the skipper, and he ordered his defenses to blast the bogey (target) 
  out of the sky.  The machine did what it was supposed to, given the 
  programs in its memory.  The captain simply accepted the machine's 
  judgment, and acted on it....

  Despite the fact that the Aegis system has been exhaustively tested at 
  the RCA lab in New Jersey and has been at sea for years, it still failed 
  to make the right decision the first time an occasion to fire a live 
  round arose.  The consequences of a similar failure in a "Star Wars"
  situation could lead to the destruction of much of the civilized world.
  [Descriptions of reasonable scenarios ....]

  The advocates of strategic defense can argue, perhaps plausibly, that 
  we have now learned our lesson.  The computers must be more sophisticated,
  they will say.  More simulations must be run and more cases studied so 
  that the artificial intelligence guidelines are more precise.

  But the real lesson from the tragedy in the Persian Gulf is that 
  computers, no matter how smart, are fallible.  Sensors, no matter how 
  good, will often transmit conflicting information.  The danger is not 
  that we will fail to prepare the machines to cope with expected situa-
  tions.  It is the absolute certainty that crucial events will be ones 
  we have not anticipated.

  Congress thought we could prevent a strategic tragedy by insisting that 
  all architectures for strategic defense have the man in the loop.  We 
  now know the bitter truth that the man will be captive to the computer,
  unable to exercise independent judgment because he will have no indepen-
  dent information, he will have to rely upon the recommendations of his
  computer adviser.  It is another reason why strategic defense systems 
  will increase instability, pushing the world closer to holocaust — 
  not further away.


Charles Daffinger <>
Sat, 16 Jul 88 17:08:02 EST
For a good overview of AEGIS, you may wish to check out:

Adam, John A.  _Pinning Defense Hopes on Aegis_,  IEEE Spectrum, 25:6,
pp 24-27, June 1988.


Lightning strikes... (again?)

Mon, 18 Jul 88 09:51 EDT
  I recently discovered the RISKS of an insufficiently grounded
building the hard way. Lightning struck!

  For several years the VAX systems that have existed in this hall
at the University of Rhode Island, have been plagued with an unusual
number of system crashes. All of these crashes coincided with
electrical storms. Unfortunately, no one bothered to research the
problem, until now. A simple system could have saved up to thousands
of dollars in equipment.

  The campus sprawls down the side of one of the higher hills in the
area. The building is a four story building, which resides at the top
of the hill. The VAX resides on the third floor of this four story
building. But there are no lightning rods on the top of this building
to dissipate the force of a lightning strike! So the VAX has acted as
the perfect lightning rod, generating a positive electrical field
sufficient enough to attract lightning.

  Thousands of dollars have gone to solve a problem that a four dollar
rod, and 20 dollars worth of wire could have solved.

Don Mac Phee

p.s. All standard and some non-standard disclaimers apply. I do not
represent the University. I just comment on it.

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