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 53

Monday 11 December 1989


o Computerized public records boon to private eyes probing suitors
Jay Elinsky
Jon von Zelowitz
o Should computers be legally responsible?
A. Lester Buck
o Automatic toll systems
Jerry Harper
o Software Development
Bill Murray
o Newsgroup posting rejected, rejected, rejected, ...
Earle Ake
o Comments on Unix INDENT program
Simson L. Garfinkel
Nick Lai
David McAllister)
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Computerized public records boon to private eyes probing suitors

Sun, 10 Dec 89 21:44:06 EST
>From "Boy Meets Girl, '89, Can Be a Detective Story" by Dirk Johnson, in
the New York Times, 10-Dec-89, Page 1:

  "Computerizing of public records in recent years has proved a boon to
  investigators, who say they can find out almost anything simply by
  keying a Social Security number into a computer...  `It's usually very
  easy', said Ed Pankau, the president of Inter-Tect [a Houston investigative
  agency], who is the author of `How to Investigate by Computer'."

The context of the article, from the lead paragraph: "Eager to trust but
determined to verify, many single women in this age of risky romance are hiring
private detectives to check the backgrounds of their suitors."  A few
paragraphs later, "Women are far more likely than men to hire an investigator,
and usually their suspicions are on the mark, detectives said."

In this case I'm tempted to call easy access to records (assuming it's legal) a
benefit instead of a risk.  Then again, I got married ten years ago, and my
fiancee's investigation of my background was more traditional, like meeting my
parents and using her "feminine intuition".  And the article ends with a
non-computer-related risk: The woman who is the subject of the article had
three men investigated and found "skeletons in their closets".  The fourth man
she investigated was a-ok, and she was so thrilled that she told him he had
passed the investigation.  He wasn't thrilled to hear that he had been
investigated.  "`He kind of freaked out', she said.  `But then, as I tried to
explain why I did it, he understood, kind of'.  She added, `We're not dating

Jay Elinsky, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY

Don't Give Social Security Numbers to Girlfriends

Jon von Zelowitz <>
Mon, 11 Dec 89 00:10:10 PST
[...]  For $500, the Inter-Tect investigative agency in Houston promises to
verify within a week a person's age, ownership of businesses, history of
bankruptcies, if there are tax liens, appearance in newspaper articles, as well
as divorces and children.  Some clients have paid the detective agency as much
as $10,000 to unearth secrets.

"People want to find a quality partner," said Mr. Pankau, who is a former
investigator for the Internal Revenue Service. [!-jvz] "I wouldn't say they're
paranoid, but they're very cynical."

    ...sun!adobe!vonzelow   Jon von Zelowitz

Should computers be legally responsible?

A. Lester Buck <buck@siswat.UUCP>
11 Dec 89 07:21:12 GMT
Recently I ran across a copy a paper in my files entitled "Are There Senses in
which a Computer may Properly by Held Responsible for its Actions?" by J.P.A.
Race from Brunel Univeristy, UK, in the volume "Information Technology for the
Eighties", ed. R.D. Parslow (Heyden,1981).  I include some extended excerpts
from his article.  Several of the points Race proposes have fascinating RISKS
implications, and I would be quite interested in more recent references on this
subject.  I also have not yet heard of insurance policies for the actions of a
computer.  Do such policies exist?

" the moment our natural reaction [to a wrong brought about by the agency
of a computer], to say `It was the computer's fault', will be laughted at.  The
sophisticated will [...] turn immediately to the human being involved, the
programmers, operators, compiler writers, maintenance engineers, sponsors,
consultants, hardware designers...  and try to apportion liability among them."

"Such critics of our `It was the computer's fault' are themselves naive.
We are quite quite correct in our instincts to start by blaming the
computer, for the following reasons:

    "The computer system may be indeed liable, and no one else.  The
    program may have been correctly designed and arranged to adapt
    to circumstances, but on this occasion the adaptation led it
    astray.  The human beings involved acted in good faith to the
    best of their ability, and are not liable.  Yet a blame-worthy
    thing happened.  Therefore the non-human system must be blamed,
    unless we call the happening an Act of God, which we would never
    do if a human being had been involved instead of a computer.

    "The computer system may evade responsibility wholly or in part,
    because of negligence or deliberate action on the part of one
    or all of the human beings involved.  But we have to start
    somewhere, and by calling to account the agent -- the computer --
    which is prima facie responsible, the process of finding a
    culprit fails safe.  We shall see later how the computer may
    be expected to defend itself by inculpating others, and how
    it can make amends if found wholly or partly liable.

Race defines a "computer system" as "one particular combination of hardware,
software, and data, such that its functional behaviour is different from any
other system", the data being particularly important to distinguish between
initial identical twins that have experienced different learning sets for their
expert systems.  He then draws a distinction that a responsible computer is not
at all the same as an "intelligent" computer.  "No, the characteristic of the
computer systems under discussion is not so much intelligence, as the ability
to rationalise, that is, to give an account of their actions, and to construct
courses of action using powerful planning procedures, like Terry Winograd's

"We are talking about responsibility: no need to put [the computer system] to
Turing's test to show a human level of intelligence.  In fact, as pointed out
by Turing's brother, a computer like [this responsible system] will make a poor
showing at writing a sonnet, but that doesn't stop us from treating it as a
responsible agent.  Few submarine captains write good sonnets either, or
clerks, or public corporations, yet all these entities have responsibilities in

"There are three aspects of punishment:

    Retribution: the need for society to get its revenge on the wrong-
    doer: a basically irrational (but quite understandable) emotional
    response.  If this means pushing a computer system over a cliff
    after it has driven someone to suicide through sending them wrong
    electricity bills, we can understand it. [...]

    Rehabilitation: In this sense, the aim of punishment is to improve
    the individual for his own sake and that of society.  In the case
    of a computer, this may involve re-programming or the indication
    to the computer that its previous response had been wrong, so that
    this reprimand is stored as a new parameter value to adjust its
    future behaviour.  The fact that we did not use a cat-o'-nine-tails
    or the brig does not mean what we did was not punishment, any more
    than it is not punishment - of a severe kind - if a court-martial
    reprimands an officer who runs a frigate aground.

    Deterrence:  The fact that [this computer system] is punished should
    be communicated to other computer systems working on similar things.

"Lastly in this section we should consider the case where a computer is
involved as a principal in a civil suit: punishment is not involved,
but restitution of damages is.  In the past one would have thought it
bizarre for the mechanical agent to be the actual defendant, yet as was
said at the outset, our big problem with computers is that unlike
hammers, it is very hard for a plaintiff to find any human being to
accept responsibility for their bad behaviour.  So he should be able to
sue them, just as a corporation may be sued, and for much the same


    Computer systems should be designed to include the ability to give an
    account of the bases of their actions, as `expert systems' do now,
    and, at a more mundane level, commercial systems do with an inbuilt
    `audit trail'.

    Our instinct to `blame the computer' when it makes errors should be
    elevated to a policy.  It should be possible to take civil or criminal
    action against it in circumstances in which a human agent would also
    have been taken to court.

    Based on the system's own account of events, and other evidence,
    responsibility will be assigned and judgement given.

    Where the responsibility is laid at the computer's door, the basis for
    its behaviour (program or data) will be altered.

    To provide for restitution of damages when a system is successfully
    sued in a civil action, it should not be a `man of straw' but would
    hold money reserves or insurance."

A. Lester Buck  ...!texbell!moray!siswat!buck

Automatic toll systems

Jerry Harper <>
Fri, 8 Dec 89 19:33:16 GMT
An automatic toll system is currently in operation in Southern Norway,
installed by Philips if my memory serves me adequately.  The system is
extremely straightforward in operation.  Regular users of the road simply buy a
playing-card sized reflective disk which is mounted on the nearside rear
window.  As a vehicle approaches the toll point it passes over a sensor (a
loop, I think) which activates a low intensty microwave transmitter.  A beam
from the transmitter strikes the upper nearside of the vehicle and a proportion
of rays are reflected from the disk onto a receiver.  Now as each reflective
disk has the ID of the vehicle owner embossed on it the reflected pattern also
presents the ID and thus beginning and endpoints of a journey on a toll road
can be accurately determined.  Furthermore, if the system receiver fails to
register an ID a video camera is activated which photographs the backend of the
suspect vehicle.  The owner can then be traced through the license plate.  Road
users can be either billed every month directly or may pay a cetain amount in
advance.  Vehicles can pass through the electronic "gate" at up to 70kmh with
detection accuracy of ID remaining up in the early nineties (?)(I am quoting
from memory but I remember being stunned by the figures at the time).  Only
extreme environmental conditions affect the system adversely (micro wave is not
as sensitive to climatic changes as infra-red radiation).  How do I come to
have this knowledge?  Well, we are designing an automated policing system here
which should keep us busy for a few years.

John G. Harper, Computer Science Dept., University College, Dublin 4, IRELAND

Software Development (Re: Curtis Jackson, RISKS-9.50)

Sat, 9 Dec 89 12:14 EST
Curtis Jackson writes in RISKS-9.50:
>We insisted on writing the design spec before writing any code, and
>finalizing the design spec (after initial review) down to the
>individual bit level.  We then wrote pseudo-code for all modules, and
>peer-inspected those.  Finally we wrote the code with strict commenting
>standards and assembled it, then peer-inspected that.  Finally we wrote
>module tests, simulated those, then string tests, simulated those, and
>one day the hardware was off the drawing boards and in the lab.

Note the order in which code and test data were prepared.  (Note also the
two "finally"s.)

This scenario illustrates part of the problem that we have in software

Test data are part of the specification and the acceptance criteria of any
product.  In all other engineering activities they are prepared before, rather
than after the product.  In software, not only are they prepared after the
product, but often as an after thought.  For the most part, they are prepared
by the same person as produced the code.  Thus, the product exits test "when
the programmer can no longer find anymore of his own errors."

Before any one tells me that you cannot prepare the test data until after the
code because you do not know what either will look like until the code is
written, let me say that I have heard that argument before.  My answer (retort)
is that if you started preparing the code before you knew what the product
would look like and exactly how it will behave, then you clearly started too

Now the contributor quoted clearly thought that he and his colleagues were
proceeding in a rigourous and disciplined manner, in accordance with the very
best of practice.  That their practice could be so far from good engineering
practice is evidence of how far we have to go.

Note that he said nothing about building a prototype.  How would you like to
fly in an airplane built to a new design that did not inlcude a prototype?  (Do
not build a plane without a prototype; do not fly paasengers in the prototype.)

How long will we tolerate this practice and thw quality that results.  Must we
reinvent engineering?  Are we so wrapped up in our own mythology and metaphors
that we cannot learn from other disciplines?

William Hugh Murray, Fellow, Information System Security, Ernst & Young
2000 National City Center Cleveland, Ohio 44114
21 Locust Avenue, Suite 2D, New Canaan, Connecticut 06840

Newsgroup posting rejected, rejected, rejected, ...

Earle Ake <>
11 Dec 89 12:57:50 EST
    There is a new newsgroup that I subscribe to called
vmsnet.announce.newusers.  I decided to post a message to it.  That is when
the fun began.  The newsgroup is unmoderated.  After I posted to the newsgroup,
I received a mail message from a site scolding me for posting to a moderated
newsgroup and told me to post directly to the moderator instead.   He is a copy
of the message.

"This newsgroup is moderated, and cannot be posted to directly.
Please mail your article to the moderator for posting."

It then included my original message to make sure I knew what I had done.

    I was going to ignore it until I received 5 more messages from the same
site complaining about the same message.  I started to wonder, do we have a loop
here?  I fired a message off to the postmaster at the offending site to stop the
messages.  A day past and no reply.  The messages kept coming in.  I started to
keep track of how many and how often they were mailed.  They were mailed every
half hour since I first posted the message.  I then looked up the administrators
name in the UUCP maps.  I sent him a message directly to have him stop these
things.  He responded by saying he wasn't sure what was happening and to send
him a sample of the message so he could fix it.  Now we are up to 85 messages.
I finally got a response from him saying he had shut them off.  It seems one
of the sites that he is connected to accepted the message and then tried to hand
it off to his site.  His version of NEWS thinks that any newsgroup that has the
word 'announce' in it IS MODERATED no matter how you have it set up!  The remote
site tried every half hour to hand the message off to his site.  His site would
in turn reject the message and send a nasty gram back to me.  We finally got
all this straightened out after 140+ messages bounced back to me.  I don't think
I will post to that newsgroup in the near future!!!!!

Earle Ake    uunet!dayvb!fac2

comments on Unix INDENT program (Lai, RISKS-9.50)

Simson L. Garfinkel <simsong@prose.CAMBRIDGE.MA.US>
Wed, 6 Dec 89 3:43:25 EST
Actually, indent is merely changing the old-style C code (x =- 1) to the new
style. (x -= 1).  Careful programmers always put in whitespace between
assignment and varibles for this reason.  Some compilers will flag
(x=-1) as a warning because it is ambigious.

Careful programmers also always use lots of parens to make their
intentions clear.  such as ((x<3) && (y>2)).

More on indent

Nick Lai <lai@east.Berkeley.EDU>
Wed, 6 Dec 89 08:29:02 PST
Of course.  I alluded to the old style / new style conversion (K&R A.17)
in my previous note.

I am a careful programmer.  The whole point is that sometimes I run across code
written by idiots who insist on two-space indentation, no spaces between
elements of comma-seperated lists ("x=foo(9,34,&hoho)"), and writting code like
"int x=-1".  Indent held out the promise of being able to convert that crap
into something readable.  But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams.

Problem with indent revisited

David McAllister <>
Mon, 11 Dec 89 15:03:16 -0700
Just so you know, the problem with indent swapping "x = -y" to "x -= y"
also works with "x = *y" to "x *= y"
Pretty silly, huh?

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