The RISKS Digest
Volume 9 Issue 49

Monday, 27th November 1989

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 Davis on arguing about technology vs policy
Phil Agre
o Re: Check inquiry / binary search: Gardner
Jim Griffith
o Re: Check inquiry / binary search: Theroux
Roy Smith
o Re: Privacy and risks in credit information
Brinton Cooper
o Re: UNIX EXPO Blackout"
Glenn Story
o How to improve your financial standing
Glenn Story
o Re: Self-trust and computer professionals
Mike McNally
o Re: problems with government project specifications
Bob Estell
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Davis on arguing about technology vs policy

"Phil Agre" <>
Sat, 25 Nov 89 15:40:52 198
Randy Davis certainly offers a coherent argument and we should be clear just
how much it would take to refute it.  His argument, at least as I understand
it, requires that one accept no more than our society's usual definition of
engineering as an instrumental activity: ends are to be distinguished from
means; society decides upon its ends; and engineering concerns itself with the
means.  If new technology facilitates certain forms of invasion of privacy,
then that calls for a societal decision about privacy, not about technology.
To refute this argument (if that is something one wishes to do) one must
address this distinction between ends and means, arguing either that it does
not make sense, that it does not and could not remotely approximate the actual
conditions, or that it is inherently unhealthy for us to organize our thinking
in those terms.  All of these arguments have been made [*], though not so far
as I recall on the Risks list.  Arguing the points in the abstract would
presumably be a uselessly redundant activity, but using the many examples that
come up on the list to explore them concretely could well be constructive.

Phil Agre, Computer Science Department, University of Chicago

[*] Some of the standard references are:
    Hannah Arendt, "The Human Condition"
    Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology"
    Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, "Dialectic of Enlightenment"
    Stanley Aronowitz, "Science as Power"
    Jurgen Habermas, "Science and Technology"
    Bruno Latour, "Science in Action"
    Carolyn Merchant, "The Death of Nature"

Re: Check inquiry / binary search: Gardner (Mauney, RISKS-9.47)

Jim "The Big Dweeb" Griffith <griffith@scam.Berkeley.EDU>
Sat, 25 Nov 89 16:29:23 -0800
This scenario was used in _THE CASE OF THE BEAUTIFUL BEGGAR_, a Perry Mason
mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner.  In it, a wealthy elderly man was
institutionalized by his money-grubbing relatives, and they got a court order
that forced the bank to turn over all of the man's assets.  Well, the man had
previously written a $125,000 check to a niece of his (who wasn't
money-grubbing, just poor).  But there was no money in the account to cover it,
because of the court order.  After the court order, the bank received a $50,000
deposit for that man's account from a past-due business transaction.  Mason
took out a loan for $75,000, deposited it in the account, cashed the $125,000
check, and repaid the loan, along with $12.50 interest, all within 15 minutes.
And it was entirely legal, because the court order had specified that the bank
had to turn over all money *currently* deposited in the bank.  The book
mentioned here was published in 1965.

Re: Check inquiry / binary search: Theroux (Mauney, RISKS-9.47)

Roy Smith <>
Sun, 26 Nov 89 09:07:54 EST
    As with the case of the library card records recently discussed,
there is nothing particularly new about this risk just because computers
have made it easier to exploit.  In chapter 7 of Paul Theroux's novel "Fong
and the Indians", published in 1968, exactly the same scheme is used to
cash at least part of a meant-to-bounce 1000 shilling check against a 632
shillings ninepence balance.  The book does not make it clear how the
actual balance in the account was discovered, however.

Roy Smith, Public Health Research Institute, 455 First Avenue, New York,
NY 10016

Re: Privacy and risks in credit information (Gorman, RISKS-9.46)

Brinton Cooper <abc@BRL.MIL>
Sun, 26 Nov 89 16:42:27 EST
John DeBert, in the referenced article provides a good summary of TWR's
"promised practice" in protecting the privacy of credit records while affording
anyone access to his/her own information.

It's chilling to reflect upon the fact that, in my community, TRW runs a
for-profit alcoholism treatment center to which first-time DWI offenders are
often sent for treatment as part of a program of "probation before judgement."
One wonders how mutually compartmented these TRW operations are?

re: UNIX EXPO Blackout"

27 Nov 89 14:35:00 -0800
I forwarded Brian Randell's item, "UNIX EXPO Blackout" from RISKS forum 9.45,
to Tandem's internal mail system.  I received several responses which seemed to
fall into one of two categories: (1) requests for more information, and (2)
justifications of Tandem's performance in the "race" described in the article.

I found these responses curious since they seemed to diregard the fact that I
was merely repeating third- or fourth-hand information.

Meanwhile, no one seems to have noticed this fatal flaw in the original contest:
fault tolerence has no direct relationship with how fast a computer restarts
after a power failure (unless, of course, it fails to come up at all).  Even
computers that make no claims whatever about fault tolerence (such as the
lowliest PC) still are expected to restart after a power outage.

Glenn Story, Tandem Computers,

How to improve your financial standing

27 Nov 89 16:28:00 +1600
A recent RISKS posting on credit information reminded me of an incident
that happened to me a few years ago.

Due to some flaw in my personality, I love to fill out questionaires.  One day
I received a "marketing" questionaire on oil-well speculations, the last
question of which was "Would you be interested in hearing about opportunities
in this area?"  I answered that one, "no" and mailed the questionaire off.

Soon I started receiving phone calls from oil-well salesmen.  Having forgotten
all about the questionaire, I asked one of these salesmen where he got my name.
He said from some data service in Texas; he even read my profile which
described me as a "wealthy entrepeneur who likes to invest in high-risk

I wrote to the company sending the data, informing them of their error.
They responded with a form letter explaining my rights under the Fair
Credit Practices Act.  Since their information about me was not derogatory,
I did not respond.

Later when I got yet another sales call I explained about the flakey
data base in Texas.  The salesman responded that he didn't get my name from
there--he got it from Dunn and Bradstreet!

So, now that I'm rich, I'm working on famous.  Anyone know who runs the
computers for "Who's Who in America"?

Glenn Story, Tandem Computers,

Re: Self-trust and computer professionals (Fagan, RISKS-9.45)

Mike McNally <m5@lynx.UUCP>
Mon, 27 Nov 89 09:31:10 PST
The other day, whilst merrily shopping at my lovely neighborhood Mervyn's, I
overheard a conversation between a gentleman buying some clothes (shirts I
think) and the cashier.  A disagreement arose over the price of a shirt: the
customer thought it was on sale for 14.95, but the "computer" responded to the
bar code with a price of 15.99.  (Note: all the price tags I saw had the price
clearly printed, by "the computer" of course, beneath the bar code.  Perhaps
the tag in question had been mutilated.)  The customer, not at all irate,
wanted to check the price he thought was advertised on a small placard above
the display on which he found the garment.  The salesperson gladly agreed, but
pointed out two things: first, that they never have prices that are NN.95;
second, that "the computer is usually right".  The customer grinned and said
"No, I build systems, and I know that's not true."

"Well, gee," I thought to myself.  I work on computer systems, and while I know
that they have the potential of being pretty danged wrong in pretty big ways, I
also know that the salesperson was right: *usually* the computer is right; or,
more precisely in this case, when she presents the UPC code to the POS
terminal, and the thing likes it and responds with the price that matches the
code, most of the time it will be correct.  It may be the case that the
database has not been properly updated to match short-term sales, as
(apparently, from previous postings in RISKS) happens in grocery stores, but I
really must wonder if it's correct to say that the computer is "wrong".  In the
Mervyn's example, there is the additional "ECC" of the Mervyn's pricing scheme,
which only allows certain fractions.  (In the end, the customer decided that
the computer was right after all.)

I'm as leary of computerization as the next man, but not to the point of having
an almost manic distrust.  I'm not an auto mechanic or designer, but off the
top of my head I can name a few critical systems that could fail on 280 at 70
mph with disastrous consequences.  I still drive.  I ride a bicycle, but I
can't really say I trust those little spokes.  In short, I don't have complete
faith in *any* system I trust with my life, but I use (and rely on) those
systems nevertheless.
                                Mike McNally  Lynx Real-Time Systems  408 370 2233

RE: problems with government project specifications

27 Nov 89 14:13:00 PDT
  Like almost all old [more than 70 years], large [more than 10,000 people]
institutions, the government did not get to be as successful as it is by acting
the way it does now.  [Paraphrased from the original statement by Robert
Townsend, in _Up the Organization._ He was talking about GM.  Similar symptoms,
probably same causes.]

  An all too typical scenario for developing the technical section of a DoD RFP
[request for proposal] is that some technical folks may write 10 pages of plain
English, describing what they want; e.g., a typical mini-computer RFP may begin
with a list of software tools and applications that the users must have; then
talk about relaibility, so that the uses will indeed be able to work; then
mention cost, so that bidders don't blow the budget; then specify that the new
system must interface to the extant network; and finally, within those
constraints, be as fast as possible.

  Enter then the good people who must actually negotiate the contract.
Usually, that means least cost, or best bargain.  So the above RFP gets
rewritten to put cost first, and speed next; the software gets put in as a list
of "mandatory" and/or "desirable" options.  [Yes, that's one of my favorite
oxymorons - "mandatory option."]  Reliability is addressed in terms of
guaranteed response times to failures.  [An argument was once made by H-P that
it is better to respond in two days to only one failure per year, than in two
hours to a failure every week.  Sometimes the government accepts such logic;
sometimes not.]  Network interface is often left as an exercise for the buyer.
[On other occasions, "compatibility" becomes the reason for a sole source buy
of a the same brand, similar model.]  In most cases, those 10 pages now number
over 100.  And the rewrite usually takes 6 months or more.

  At the extreme, we have written specifications for systems that the vendors
do not make; e.g., instead of saying that we want lots of disk capacity in
little floor space, we specify drive characteristics.  That has led to some "no
bid" responses, much to the consternation of both sides.  And the process then
exceeds a year, including rewrites.  In that much time, the project needs have
evolved, since 25% to 35% of the project schedule has elapsed; and of course
the computer industry has evolved too; almost one PC-generation has passed.

  Ancient wisdom tells us that "Too many cooks spoil the broth."  That "A camel
is a horse designed by a committee."  Modern wisdom [Robert Heinlein] tells us
that "A committee is an animal with at least 6 legs and no brain."

  Why do we do this?  One good friend, Harry Parode, says that we only strive
to spend public funds honestly.  Somehow, we seem to feel that, if enough
people contribute enough words, the RPF, and the resulting system, will be
better.  I doubt it.  I tend to agree with the lesson in the story told after
CRAY Research built a better scientific computer than mighty IBM: Thomas Watson
asked how three dozen folks could beat a team of about 1000; when Seymour Cray
was told of the inquiry, he opined, "I believe Mr. Watson has answered his own

Disclaimer: The opinions herein are my own; and I know darn well that the
government does NOT agree.

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