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 9 Issue 21

Tuesday 5 September 1989


o Re: Technology doesn't have to be bad
Brian Randell
o Medical systems and RF interference
Edward A. Ranzenbach
o `Business Week' on computers and privacy
Rodney Hoffman
o Law == Ethical Consensus
Scott Guthery
o US occupational hazards much worse than in Europe, report claims
Jon Jacky
o Are on-line pictures RISKy?
Russ Nelson
o Non-U.S. Postal Codes -or- Cheap Mail to Europe
Michael Franz
o Tired of computers being trusted?
Hugh Davies
o Re: lowest-bidder
Donald Lindsay
Bill Anderson
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Re: Technology doesn't have to be bad (Don Norman, RISKS-9.15)

Brian Randell <>
Mon, 4 Sep 89 10:07:32 BST
I was delighted by Don Norman's piece in RISKS 9.15, since I too feel
that RISKS could and should be even better, and I very much liked the
illustrative examples he gave of the sorts of discussions
that it would be nice to see in RISKS. (Peter Neumann's comment,
stating that RISKS by its very nature attracts stories of failures
rather than successes is also true, but somewhat misses the point.)

I have in the past tried on occasion to stimulate discussion of general issues,
rather than just of the details of specific incidents, but without much
success. Let me try again, on the subject of risk assessment this time, using
some points that I made during a panel session at the recent IFIP Working
Conference on Dependable Computing Systems for Critical Applications.

Ideally, deployment of any potentially risky computer-based system will be
preceded by the sort of careful assessment of the risks involved that is
typical in a number of engineering disciplines. There are a number of
well-established techniques for such risk assessment, such as Failure Modes and
Effects Analysis, Event Tree Analysis, and Fault Tree Analysis. As I understand
it, all of these involve enumeration and consideration of possibilities, and
identification of dependencies, which are then represented in some sort of
graph structure, but none of the ensuing analyses take account of the
possibility that this graph structure will be incorrect. To my mind, this makes
these techniques of limited value for systems employing computers running large
suites of software.

In making this statement, I have three characteristics of such systems in mind:
(i) their great logical complexity, and hence the danger of their harbouring
potentially risky design faults, (ii) the largely discrete nature of their
behaviour, which means that concepts such as "stress", "failure region",
"safety factor", which are basic to conventional risk mangement have little
meaning, and (iii) the almost ethereal nature of software, which makes it much
more difficult to identify appropriate components and to understand their
interactions (both planned and accidental) than with many physical systems.

It is of course good practice to design software with a highly modular
structure, and to try to isolate critical parts of the software in as small and
simple a subsystem as possible. However with a really complex system such
structuring is again essentially ethereal and by no means simple. There will
therefore remain a significant and unquantifiable likelihood that such
modularisation and isolation is itself faulty.

I thus believe that the graph structure which purports to represent, at any
significant level of detail, the internals of (especially the software in) a
complex computing system, is likely to be wrong, in that it will not represent
any residual design faults properly, so that such faults will remain an
(unquantified) contributor to overall system risks.

The question of whether we will ever able either to guarantee that a complex
computing system is entirely free of design faults, or alternatively able to
quantify the likely impact of residual design faults is moot. The point I am
trying to make here is that in present circumstances, I see no current
alternative to basing the assessment of the risks of the overall system on a
worst case scenario for the behaviour of the computing system, based on the
physical capabilities of the its interfaces to the outside world, rather than
on mere hopes about its internal activities - and to taking appropriate
precautions externally to the computing system. Yet, unfortunately, one sees
these days the opposite trend: namely the increasing use of computing systems
in situations where there is little or no ability of some surrounding system to
mask the failures of the computing system.

It would be nice to learn the reactions to the above comments of people who
have tried applying conventional risk assessment and management techniques to
systems involving really complex software.

Brian Randell, Computing Laboratory, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
    +44 91 222 7923

Medical systems and RF interference...

"Edward A. Ranzenbach" <Ranzenbach@DOCKMASTER.NCSC.MIL>
Tue, 5 Sep 89 12:15 EDT
Last evening I visited a local hospital ICU to check on the status of a patient
I had treated and transported eariler in the day (I am a certified paramedic,
in my copious spare time).  The patient was on a state-of-the-art mechanical
respirator.  While discussing the patient's case with the attending physcian at
the patient's bedside, the respirator failed, accompanied by a visual and
auditory fanfare of alarms.  The physcian quickly reset the device and we
continued our discussion.  Moments later the device once again failed and had
to be reset (it should be noted that a number of differing events can cause
alarms in these devices and they occasionally need adjusting and service).  By
the third occurance of this failure I had noticed a pattern.  Each time I heard
radio traffic on my portable radio (in the 800 MHz band) the respirator failed.
We were not transmitting mind you, only receiving but this seemed to be enough
to set off the alarms.  Just then we received a call and when my partner keyed
his mike to transmit several other respirators in adjoining rooms also becamed
alarmed and prompted a flurry of activity to reset them.  Needless to say, our
radios are now banned from the unit.  Unfortunately, I had to leave abruptly
and did not have time to research the model or manufactuer but will follow up
when the opportunity presents itself.

Perhaps it is time to require TEMPESTing of medical equipment...  -ear

'Business Week' on computers and privacy

Rodney Hoffman <>
1 Sep 89 07:43:52 PDT (Friday)
'Business Week' magazine for Sept. 4, 1989 features a cover story entitled
IS NOTHING PRIVATE?  The teaser line says "Computers hold lots of data on
you -- and there are few limits on its use"

The article focuses mainly on financial data, especially credit records.
It includes some good sidebar pieces:
    (reviewing existing privacy laws)

    (guarding your Social Security Number is almost pointless today)

    (it's easy for almost anyone to get almost anyone else's credit

In that last piece, the reporter posed as an employer checking out potential
job candidates.  He was required to produce almost no verification.  He then
requested, among other things, the credit record for one Dan Quayle (at an
Indiana address taken from an old "Who's Who in the Midwest").  This raised no
alarms.  It turned up an "a.k.a. J. Danforth Quayle" with a Washington-area
address, who charges more at Sears than at Brooks Brothers and has a big
mortgage.  It gave his credit card numbers, etc.  The Vice President's office
was not amused.  "We find the invasion of privacy aspect of the credit
situation disturbing.  Further controls should be considered," said a

Law == Ethical Consensus

Scott Guthery <guthery@acw.UUCP>
Mon, 4 Apr 88 08:07:50 CDT
Donald J. Weinshank in a recent posting (via Tom Thomson) to RISKS
asks if the law is all we can appeal to in teaching ethics.  The
answer, at least in U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions, must be
"Yes".  The law *IS* the current ethical consensus.  To go beyond the
law in a course taught at a taxpayer-supported institution is to
begin to mix state and religion which we in America have agreed
through law making that we wont' do.  A teacher in a institution
receiving U.S. taxpayer support is legally obliged to state from the
front of the classroom that if it isn't illegal it is by definition
ethically correct.

US occupational hazards much worse than in Europe, report claims

Tue, 5 Sep 1989 12:46:48 PDT
The following story appeared on the front page of THE SEATTLE TIMES, Monday
September 4, 1989:

WORK IN US: HIGH DEATH RATE --- Associated Press and United Press International

... The National Safe Workplace Institute found that more workers are killed on
the job in this nation than in most other industrialized countries. ... US
workers are 36 times more likely to be killed than a Swede, and nine times more
likely to be killed than a Briton, it said.   The report said one out of 14
workers will be killed or seriously injured at work. ...

[ Such a big difference is surprising to me.  Is this for real?  It is often
noted that European safety regulations are generally more stringent than those
in the US.  Does this contribute to the reported difference, or is the effect
dominated by some other factor - e.g., proportionately more people employed
in hazardous industries in the US?

This report may seem only marginally related to RISKS; at COMPASS '88 last year
someone cited a study that said about two percent of industrial accidents  were
attributable to control system failures.  - JJ]

- Jonathan Jacky, University of Washington

Are on-line pictures RISKy?

Russ Nelson <>
Fri, 1 Sep 89 22:31:26 EDT
Does anyone have any experience with the RISKs of digitized faces such as are
found on  I want to gather digitized faces of our staff
members and students to make them publicly available.  I would like to be
forewarned of any problems that other people have encountered.

--russ (nelson@clutx [.bitnet |])|(|
       (|( :-)

Non-U.S. Postal Codes -or- Cheap Mail to Europe

05 Sep 89 11:25:59+0200
Quite regularly I receive mail from sources in the U.S., whose computer
systems are obviously unable to handle European-style postal codes (not
fitting the two-letter-plus-five-digit scheme).

Coming in the mail today was something new:  A mass mailing from a North
Californian company, directed at my street address in

  Switzerla, ND 08008    (my four-digit Swiss postal code zero extended)

I still wonder, whether the typist who entered my address that way acted
out of ignorance or in a flash of genius...

Interesting enough, the U.S. Post Office people in California must have
believed that "Switzerla" is somewhere in North Dakota.  I don't think
that "Bulk Rate U.S. Postage PAID" mailings are usually transported
overseas...  All other mail of this type that I receive has some extra
postage added.

This should be investigated.  How about writing a letter to those friends
of yours in Germa, New York or those in Brita, Indiana...   :-)

Michael Franz, Computersysteme, ETH Zurich, Switzerland   +41-1-256'22'23

Tired of computers being trusted?

31 Aug 89 07:37:35 PDT (Thursday)
Recently, my beloved (and elderly) Porsche 924 Turbo expired at the
roadside. It has a electronic engine management system, and after some
initial investigation (including discovering that the hardware doesn't
match the manual!), I realised that the problem was (a) in the EMS, and (b)
beyond my ability to diagnose. I had it towed to the nearest dealer.

After a few days, I rang the dealer to find out what had happened. They
said "We can't find out what's wrong with it". I rang back the following
day, and the day after - Same story. Then I went there. The service manager
sheepishly admitted that their diagnostic computer was faulty, and after
several attempts to diagnose my car, they'd tried it on one of the new 944s
in the showroom, and it had diagnosed that as faulty. They'd had to return
the diagnostic computer to Porsche UK Headquarters for replacement, before
they could fault-find my car.

Motto: "Who will diagnose the diagnostics?"

Hugh Davies.
(P.S. Oh yeah, the fault. New EMS, H.T. module and other bits and pieces.
$1600. Sigh.)

Re: lowest-bidder: use Points

Sun, 3 Sep 1989 00:25-EDT
The discussion to date has been long on complaints, but short on workable
suggestions. I would like to put forward a system which was in use in Canada,
back when I freelanced.

Each bid was assigned points. There were points for having been in business a
while (stability). There were points for having completed past contracts
successfully (competence). There were points for having the necessary employees
in hand.

Note, by the way, that bids are not necessarily just dollar values.  They may
also contain specific plans, which differ in both the proposed method and the
proposed result. These can be evaluated, and given merit points. For example, a
bidder may have seen a way to reduce costs, or may have argued that a danger to
the public safety must be reduced, or whatever. These proposals may try to
justify a lower bid, or a higher bid. The proposals might be judged to have low
merit, because e.g. the review board wasn't willing to cut costs in the
proposed manner, or didn't want to buy that much public safety.

Since this was the government, they could also assign points for "agenda"
items: Canadian content, number of jobs created, minority and regional issues,
being a small business, development of a useful technology, whatever. I never
learned exact details, but then, I am putting this forwards as a workable
general idea, not as some sort of precise formula.

For example, it is possible to give security points to computer purchases.
Bids proposing MSDOS would lose all of these points.  However, if the product
didn't require much security, then MSDOS might still be in the winning bid.


Re: Lowest bidders (RISKS-9.20)

5 Sep 89 09:49 EDT
A friend of mine who has his own business has this quote from John Ruskin
(the 19th Century English social critic) on his office door:

"It's unwise to pay too much ... but it's worse to pay too little. When you
pay too much, you lose a little money ... that is all. When you pay too
little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was
incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.

The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a
lot. It can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to
add someting for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough
to pay for something better."

Bill Anderson, Xerox Corp.

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