The RISKS Digest
Volume 9 Issue 56

Thursday, 21st December 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 GAO Says IS technology is transforming the Government
Dave Davis
o California Supreme Court endorses computerized horoscopes
Clifford Johnson
o Software malpractice
Steve Philipson
o Computerized card catalog
Roy Smith
o Frustrated with phones
Shamus McBride
o 23 years MTBF ???
David A. Honig
o Re: Another runaway military computing project: WWMCCS
Tom Reid
o Virus Hearing on TV
Marc Rotenberg
o Risks of posting to risks!
Joe Dellinger
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

GAO Says IS technology is transforming the Government

Dave Davis <>
Thu, 21 Dec 89 07:57:19 EST
Today's Washington Post (12-21) reports on a General Accounting Office study,
"Financial Integrity Act" about Information Technology applications within the
government.  The overall message is that information systems technology is
costly and risky.  Here are some quotes:

"Federal agencies operate over 53,000 unclassified automated
cycle costs in the billions of dollars..."  The article reports costs of $17
billion for fiscal 89 versus $9 billion in fiscal 82 for these computer

"Invariably these systems do not work as planned, have cost overruns in the
millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars, and are not developed on
time.  Congressional interest..has increased..."

Some specific examples are cited.

"...defense [business as well as command and control] far exceeded their
original costs estimates...fell significantly short of
flaws, misjudgments in requirements, poor program management."

The article describes a Navy financial system whose costs grew from $33 million
to $479 over nine years of development.  Also, an IRS system is estimated to
cost $1 billion, and has not shown benefits from currently operational

Except for specific details, all of this is old news to many of us who have
been involved in large systems of various kinds for a while.  What does seem to
be new are trends toward larger fiascoes and for increased government concern a
by people who control purse strings.  Also, do stories of such failures
indicate that we reach an intellectual brisk wall when we try to develop large
systems?  Or, are we simply repeating dumb mistakes?

David Davis, MITRE Corp., McLean, VA                   Standard Disclaimer

California Supreme Court endorses computerized horoscopes

"Clifford Johnson" <GA.CJJ@Forsythe.Stanford.EDU>
Tue, 19 Dec 89 15:58:44 PST
Excerpted from the S.F.Chronicle, 19 Dec 1989:

  The California Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for the use of
  standardized psychological tests in criminal trials to prove that a defendant
  does not fit the personality type likely to have committed the charged crime.
  In a 5-2 ruling, the court rejected a comparison that likened personality
  tests to lie detectors or voiceprints, which are excluded from tials because
  their reliability is not commonly accepted by the scientific community.  The
  court majority said introduction of standardized psychological tests in
  trials is not a revolutionary development and the tests reliability can be
  challenged by prosecutors.

  "We see no reason to subject (these tests) to the special restrictions
  governing admission of new, novel or experimental scientific techniques not
  previously accepted by the courts," wrote Justice David Eagleson for the

  Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas dissented, saying the decision opened the way
  for new "mini-trials" focusing not on a defendant's guilt or innocence but on
  his personality profile and whether it conforms to "the profile displayed by
  the average child molester, robber, arsonist, or whomever."  He acknowledged
  that personality tests have been admitted by some courts to ahow a
  defendant's mental state at the time of the crime.  But that is "far
  different than using them to exclude defendant from the relevant class of
  defenders in much the same manner as a blood test or voice print," Lucas

  With the vote, the court reversed the child molestation convictions of a
  Kern County couple found guilty of committing lewd acts with four young boys
  in 1983 and 1984.  During the trial of Margie Grafton and Timothy Palomo,
  they attempted to call as an expert witness a psychologist who had given them
  two commonly used tests — the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
  and the Millon Clinical Mutiaxial Inventory.  The psychologist, Roger
  Mitchell of Bakersfield, was prepared to testify on the basis of the test
  results and his interviews with Grafton and Palomo that they showed no
  indications of deviance and were unlikely to be involved with the charged

  Out of the presence of the jury, Mitchell told the trial court judge that
  the 566-question Minnesota test, copyrighted in 1943, had a reliability
  rating of over 70% [sic!!!] in diagnosing the illness of some patients and
  included hidden questions that detected lies by the person taking the exam.

  Many experts believed that the test makes it impossible [sic!!!] to conceal
  an abnormal personality profile, Mitchell told the judge.

  But the trial judge ruled that Mitchell could not testify because the
  defense had failed to prove the tests met the legal standard of general
  acceptance in the scientific community.

  The court yesterday overturned that ruling, saying the judge should have
  allowed Mitchell to testify.  The majority also found that if his testimony
  had been allowed, it may have changed the outcome of the case.

What has this to do with comp.risks?  The tests at issue are all wholly
computerized.  Moreover, as if common sense were not enough, it is well
established (the tests were statistically debunked in the 1960s) that the
maximum accuracy of diagnosis, in most unrealistically favorable circumstances,
is of the order of 20% — hardly an improvement over a guess.  Besides, the
test is readily foolable, so much so that it is generally regarded as per se
invalid the second time it's taken by the same person.  Moreover, the
"reliablity" pertains only to the crudest mental types of disability
(schitzophrenia, paranoia, and five other yes/no nasties), whereas the computer
tests are generally preprogrammed to spew out pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo
analogous to daily horoscopes, execept that long psychiatric words are used.
Such print-outs more often than not contradict themselves in details.

I was once compelled to take such a test, by a California judge.  The examiner,
who actually gave classes in psychology to high-power groups of attorneys and
judges, without blush permitted me to answer difficult questions by tossing a
coin, because I said that was my "natural response" to the test.  Still, the
computer nevertheless reported that the test was "valid."  On one page it
reported that a compelling aversion to publicity, on another that I avidly
desired publicity.  One amusing diagnosis was the computer's finding that I
lacked a sense of humor!

I think this is worth the long posting, because these computerized tests are
administered almost universally now, and decide everything from employability
to the suitability of a mother to be a mother.

Software malpractice (Jacky, RISKS-9.52)

Steve Philipson <>
Mon, 18 Dec 89 22:30:58 PST
A few weeks ago there appeared an article in RISKS that reported on a computer
software firm that had been successfully sued for "software malpractice".  I
didn't keep the article, so my details are sketchy.  As I recall, the judge
found that a programmer was culpable since he did not abide by ACM standards
for software, and since he was an ACM member he should have adhered to those

   This has been nagging at me for days.  I've been an ACM member for some
eight years and I've never even SEEN these standards.  Furthermore, I do not
necessarily endorse ACM standards just because they are from ACM.  The industry
certainly hasn't embraced all ACM standards (or any one else's for that

   Even if one DOES endorse the standards, one wouldn't necessarily use them in
all cases.  For example, when writing experimental or demonstration software,
formal development methods are often not used.  The efficacy of the "quick and
dirty" approach not withstanding, there are time when this is done UNDER THE
DIRECTION of management AND the customer.

   It boggles the mind to consider the possibility that one could be sued for
"software malpractice" without there being a formal definition of it or a legal
standard.  Breach of contract might have been a reasonable finding, but
this????  I've heard it said in many arenas that the legal system in this
country is out of control.  This seems to be yet another example of a system
out of kilter.  Will this lead to a situation where no one dares to sell
software to another party?  Will programmers seek to defend themselves from
their employers for fear of software quality violations?  Stay tuned...

Computerized card catalog

Roy Smith <>
Sun, 17 Dec 89 23:05:05 EST
    The Brooklyn Public Library has recently put in a computerized card
catalog system.  The branch nearest me (the main branch, as it turns out) has
about 4 terminals in the main lobby, which also contains the card files (in GOK
how many thousands of drawers).  It hasn't taken people long to become totally
dependent on the computerized system.  Typically there are lines with 2-4
people waiting at each terminal (probably a 5-20 minute wait) and not a single
soul using the card files.  Unless there happens to be a terminal free (very
rare) I just do it the old fashioned way.  I can look up 3 or 4 books in much
less time than it would take me to wait for a turn at the terminal.  I wonder
how long the average person will wait to use the "new fast computerized
catalog" before resorting to the "old slow way", even if the old way is faster.

Frustrated with phones

Shamus McBride <>
Mon, 18 Dec 89 15:09:01 PST
The Bellevue, Washington, Journal American ran an article on
telephone glitches collected from its readers.

   o "... a dark stormy night, a desperate woman, a telephone from Kafka".
     Using a pay phone at a service station along the highway, she
     dialed 0 then the number and the phone went dead. She tried again
     and again. She finally reached an operator and found out that (a)
     the phone was owned by a private company (not AT&T), (b) collect
     calls could not be made, and (c) she could not be connected with
     an AT&T operator.

   o Another woman received hourly calls with the recorded message
     "The maximum dollar amount is exceeded by the number 4-4-4-4-4-4."
     The problem was traced to a pay phone at a local gas station with
     a full coin box. The phone was programmed to call someone when the
     coin box was full. Unfortunately, it was programmed with the wrong

   o For six months a woman had long distance calls to Mexico City
     on her bill. The phone company finally discovered that the woman's
     line was cross wired with a neighbor's line. The twist in the
     story was that the neighbor had recently moved into the house and
     did not realize it had TWO lines (the phone company had failed to
     disconnect the second line when the previous owner moved out).
     The neighbor's bill looked normal since most of his calls were on
     his primary line. Only when he used a secondary phone were the
     calls billed elsewhere.

   o One family had phones that rang three times then stopped.
     Friends said they called and let the phone ring 20 times
     and no one answered. "After extensive investigation [GTE]
     found an electronic glitch at a nearby central office."

The article concluded: "the letters we received showed that people are
dependent on the telephone and, when things go wrong, hardly in a mood
to hear a pitch about the values of consumerism. True phones don't go
wrong often, they said, But when they do ..."

23 years MTBF ???

"David A. Honig" <honig@BONNIE.ICS.UCI.EDU>
Fri, 15 Dec 89 11:47:08 -0800
In the recent Electronic Design News (a trade newspaper), the cover story is
about Fujitsu's recent claims of 200,000 hrs MTBF on some of its hard drives.
That is nearly 23 years of 24-hour continous use.  Needless to say, this number
is not obtained from units in the field, but extrapolated from their test data.
Other manufacturers consider that number to be marketing strategy, although
some have large (but not that large) numbers, too.  If its any consolation, the
article said that the drives had a 5 year warantee...

I could not help but be reminded of the 10^-9 claims of some software producers...

Re: Another runaway military computing project: WWMCCS

Tom Reid x4505 <>
Fri, 8 Dec 89 14:22:05 EST
I worked with WWMCCS in 1985/6 and many of their problems stemmed from a
technology bet that they had made 3-4 years earlier.  They had a software
first philosophy that stressed using as much commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS)
software as possible.  They bet that by 1986, respondents to the RFP would
be able to bid COTS 1) multi-level secure operating systems and 2)
distributed heterogeneous DBMSs.  It is 1989 and there are still precious few
(if any) examples of either.  When it became obvious that neither was going
to appear by 1985/6 when they were scheduled publish the RFP, they were not
prepared and the program began scrambling to find stop gaps.  It was
downhill from there.

Virus Hearing on TV (CPSR, too)

Fri, 15 Dec 89 12:38:30 -0800
The November House Judiciary Committee hearing on computer virus legislation
will be shown on C-Span on December 23 (8:45 am) and December 24 (1:30 am).
This was an interesting and timely event with representatives from NIST,
ADAPSO, CBEMA, CPSR, and members of Congress discussing technical and legal
responses to the issues raised by computer viruses.

The prepared CPSR statement on computer virus legislation is available from the
CPSR Washington office.  Please send me a note if you would like a copy.

Marc Rotenberg.

Risks of posting to risks!

Joe Dellinger <>
Tue, 19 Dec 89 21:37:01 PST
In the last few days I have learned the risks of posting to comp.risks!

1) No, Convex's "lint" does not edit files, I meant "indent"! Oops.
(Re: Fun and Games with Indent, RISKS-9.54)

2) I also learned the dangers of using questionable terms like "yellow peril".
I thought these days that "yellow peril" was so outdated that it carried about
the same force as "Redcoats". Evidently I was wrong. If I upset anybody, I'm
sorry. You can stop educating me as to the correct current popular definition
now! Hopefully in a few decades or so my usage will become correct.
(Re: Risks of Mail, RISKS-9.55)

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