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 4 Issue 57

Friday, 6 March 1987


o Re: Air Traffic Control, Auto-Land
David Redell
o 911, drive-fly by wire, risks, and the American work ethic
Wes Williams
o Re: drive by wire
Bennett Todd
o Autoland
Peter Ladkin
o Re: Puget Sound Ferry Boats
Bjorn Freeman-Benson
o Credit Card Limits
Clive Dawson
o NSA Monitored McFarlane House, Magazine Reports
Don Hopkins
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Re: Air Traffic Control, Auto-Land

David Redell <redell@src.DEC.COM>
Fri, 6 Mar 87 13:20:07 PST
Recent discussions have compared risks of computerized autolanding of planes
to those of computerized launch-on-warning of nuclear weapons.  I think lumping
these together can be misleading. For example, as Mr. Shapir points out:

  >  ...the question should not be whether automatic systems will cause
  >  accidents, but whether the accidents' cost would be greater or smaller
  >  than the cost of accidents in the human systems they replace.

This is A good question, but not THE only good question. In cases where
an existing situation is being automated, I agree that this is the right
question to ask. Often, however, the prospect of using high-speed computer
control is cited in support of plans to establish new situations where human
control would be unworkable. Subsequent discussion often focuses on the
relative risks of human vs computer control. But if neither works, then
the mistake is to get into the situation in the first place! Ideas like
computerized launch-on-warning or AI-based weapons release for SDI are not
bad ideas because humans could do those jobs better — they are bad ideas
because we are moving toward situations where neither humans, nor computers,
nor any combination of the two can be trusted to do the right thing in the
time available. One of our responsibilities as professionals is to try to
identify and call attention to such situations before the choice degenerates
to one of arguing about which of several unworkable options is the least
                                    Dave Redell

911, drive-fly by wire, risks, and the American work ethic

Wes Williams <eww@OBERON.LCS.MIT.EDU>
6 Mar 1987 1516-EST (Friday)
         (interrelated thoughts)

911: Having been associated with the Emergency Services for some 20 years, I
do not find the 911 articles surprising. I remember the horror stories from
the times of conversion from "local" operators to those of the more regional
type. People were accustomed to picking up the phone and yelling help or fire
and screaming the address to the operator. While in the "new" system, the "0"
DIALED in the phone would connect you to the local operator (usually) within
the town or city of origin. Here the most severe complications were duplicate
street names or same names suffixed by St. or Terr. or Place or Circle. As
time went by the switchboards dissapeared from the local towards the regional
type. Now the problems grew to the kind of identifying the neighboring
community possibility. Here the operator would be the one in the position of
determining the locality of origin of the call, as well as the correct
address. Sometimes (1960's era to present) multiple community dispatches were
heard for the same address in different municipalities.

The problems have not been rectified, only compounded by the advent of
differing phone systems and overlays of telephone exchanges. Software may or
may not be the problem, as the best software can only rely on input
(electronic or manual). As area codes are becoming more and more prevalent,
it may be necessary to soon dial an area code to report the fire across the
street. hmmmmmm.....

Point 1. System modification (hard or soft) is not always the answer unless
the root problem is solved. Even here, there will forever be unresolved
complications. Example: a non-English speaking (obscure language) person will
call an English speaking relative in another town (or state) to report an
emergency. Second party calls are always the hardest to handle.
The time is not yet at hand to convert the emergency services to AI !

Steer/Drive by wire: These discussions are relevant to Risks as they are or
will be implemented at some time. BUT! It is sort of the same as adding the
computer to a small business; there are times that it is just not
appropriate. Mechanical design considerations have been for some time at the
technological point to eliminate any of the problems (reasons) for such a
computer system. Ask a race car driver what computer systems he wishes. Here
the answer seems to be more emergency condition indicated than technologically
capable. That driver wants a system to turn on the fire extinguishment system
in .000001 second of the explosion or fire, and yet you will not see the air
bag pop out of the MECHANICAL steering wheel. You have seen the severe
crashes these people are exposed to, and yet they want the machine to be at
hand, not computer. This will hold true unless the people start loosing to
such a system, thus proving its merit.

Point 2. This is the, "eliminate the man" syndrome. If the speed and
complexity of the systems are such so that a computer insertion to control
it is necessary, then it is time to consider removal of the human element.
This bridge is a hard one to cross. Project loss due to failure and the
price of backup systems put the cost of such projects over the top. We still
put the wo/man above price and yet when a multibillion dollar project is
launched, the requirement of the human to be onboard is still paramount.
Protection of the systems, uncalculated emergency procedures, patches and
repairs incapable of the onboard systems are only feasible with the HANDS
and brains of the crew, supported by their electronic and human counterparts
in remote.  Major system failure will cost not only the project, but also
the crew. This possibly is the impetus for quality in design and
manufacture. Do you work more carefully when there is a human life in the
balance at the reception of your output?  i.e., The program writer who
discovered his program was inside the operating room during a heart
transplant, and had a few thoughts about the possible bug.

Work ethics in the U.S.: Systems installation into the chain of mechanical
elements is obviously an expected outgrowth of our technology. The desire to
have modern systems replacing 100 year old mechanical ones runs back as far
as the fellow that removed the square corners from the wheel. The real
question is if the can opener really needs that keyboard input in conjunction
with the clock card in order to do the job. If it is a desire of the customer
to have such a system, so be it. System implementation seems more of, "Gee,
look what I made. Where shall I put it?", than here is the problem, what
shall we do to make it better.

Total redesign may be more appropriate than added-on systems. It is up to us
to say enough is enough and initiate that type of improvement rather than
amend a system.

  >From: sigma! (Bill Roman) >*RUMOR*
  >I can't vouch for this personally... but a few years ago I spoke to a
  >contractor who said he had been approached to write software for the
  >Issaquah class ferries.       [...]      My friend refused the contract.

This type of reaction to an idiotic set of circumstances is of the highest
quality. The only neglect here (not mentioned) was a blast to the authorities
requesting the work.

It is a shame that in order to keep position in relation to other
professionals, one must remain mute on problems such as this. I wonder how
many lines of code be eliminated or dollars saved (redundant?) if there were a
majority of professionals that acted in this manner?

Tell me, are the Risks that we are seeing more of a moral question or one of
simple incompetence?                        Wes Williams

Re: drive by wire

Fri, 6 Mar 87 06:03:40 est
Representatives of GM recently gave a presentation here at Duke on the
Chevrolet Corvette Indy. This "show concept car" (a one-of-a-kind) has about
everything on it people have been worrying about in this forum; I went to the
presentation and nagged the engineers about the points of concern that have
been raised here. This car was built by Lotus Cars Ltd.; it might have been
the project that started this discussion.

For starters, the term "drive-by-wire" is used in their glossies *not* to
refer to the computer controlled steering, but to computer controlled
throttle! The car is four-wheel-drive, with computer control over the split of
torque between the front and rear wheels, designed to maintain maximum
traction in all conditions of acceleration/deceleration. The "gas pedal" is
connected to a sensor (and has a hydraulic ram behind it so the computer can
simulate the feel of a mechanical linkage); the sensor concludes what
acceleration the driver wants and delivers torque to the front and rear
wheels. This is probably the most RISKy part of the whole car, in my humble
opinion. It is a bit more comprehensive than the computer controlled idle
adjustments and suchlike that are getting to be common these days.

It also has a computer controlled four wheel active suspension; when I asked
them about the failure modes and potential RISKs in this subsystem, they
replied that in the event of loss of power to the hydraulic system driving the
active suspension, the coil spirings hold the car at its normal height above
the wheels, and the hydraulic rams are designed to fail under loss of power
into reasonable shocks. The ride would be mushy, but not dangerous (unless of
course it failed in the bottom of a really tight turn). The computer
controlling the system (1) has internal sanity checks throughout, and (2) has
multiply redundant sensors; whenever any inconsistency is found in the system
it fails into the powered down mode.

Finally, the computer controlled steering. The front wheels are normal manual
rack-and-pinion steering; the front steering linkage has a sensor on it so
that the computer can tell how far you have the front wheels deflected. Based
on the deflection of the front wheels, the speed you are going, current
acceleration vector, "weight" currently on each wheel, and suchlike, the
computer deflects the rear wheels. In particular, at low speeds, the rear
wheels turn the opposite direction from the front, tightening the turning
radius substantially. At high speeds, they turn the same direction as the
front wheels, making fast lane changes smoother; instead of slewing around,
and rocking from side to side, the car tends to slip crabwise laterally. The
total deflection available to the rear wheels in the prototype is 20 degrees
left or right of center; according to one of the engineers there they only
would leave 5 degrees available in a production system (that's all that is
needed). The system is once again equipped with multiple internal sanity
tests, and dumps at the first sign of trouble; large springs center the rear
wheels if the system dumps. In tests where they deliberately cause the critter
to fail turned as sharply as possible, they found that at slow speeds the car
could be stopped safely, and at high speeds the driver could keep control by
steering the front to compensate (and proceeding slightly angled down the
road). All in all, the severity of symptoms seem much less severe than a
blowout; if the likelihood of such a failure can be reduced as low, then the
steering shouldn't introduce too much RISK.

Bennett Todd, Duke User Services, Durham, NC 27706-7756; +1 919 684 3695
UUCP: ...{philabs,akgua,decvax,ihnp4}!mcnc!ecsvax!dukeac!bet


Peter Ladkin <ladkin@kestrel.ARPA>
Fri, 6 Mar 87 13:03:07 pst
Those who do not like category IIIA autoland (auto up to main wheels on the
ground, pilot has to lower the nosewheel) might avoid flying the Concorde,
which uses it routinely at Kennedy and London Heathrow, and might also avoid
flying in to London Heathrow, which I understand has Cat IIIA on all
runways, used routinely in English Weather. It's been thoroughly tested in
the field for many years.
                                        peter ladkin

Re: Puget Sound Ferry Boats

Bjorn Freeman-Benson <>
Fri, 6 Mar 87 07:56:53 PST
From a Puget Sounder who has followed the story in the papers...
The computers for the Issaquah class ferries were built by a private
contractor to MP&E.  This private contractor turned out to be a one man shop
who did little or no quality control and went belly-up after the ferries were
built.  He/she did not leave any documentation behind.

The results were:
    (a) The computers are poorly designed and built — at one point the boards
    physically fell out of the card cage while under way.
    (b) With no documentation, repair would be incredibly expensive.
    (c) The failure of the computers (starting with the maiden voyage) had
    caused the public to mistrust them, and so replacement by a physical
    system is occurring.
    (d) Many of the failures have been attributed to physical parts such as
    small relays.  (i.e. The software said "slow down" but engine didn't.)
    A better overall system design would have helped.

                        Bjorn N. Freeman-Benson

Credit Card Limits

Clive Dawson <AI.CLIVE@MCC.COM>
Fri 6 Mar 87 15:12:47-CST
   [This is another instance of an old problem, but worth rehearing.]

Yesterday I received a nasty letter from my credit union stating that I had
exceeded my VISA card's authorized credit limit of $500 by $203.  They
advised me to pay up immediately or face the consequences, etc. etc.  This
was a bit of a surprise, considering that my credit limit was actually $2000.  

The very next letter in my stack of mail contained the following:

  Dear Member:

  Please accept our apology for the recent letter stating you were over
  your credit line.

  We were attempting to implement a credit line increase into the system.  Due
  to a programming error by our processor in Dallas, the old credit line was
  inadvertently removed and only the increase appeared on the account.  Some
  members were declined on purchases due to this error.

  The new credit lines are now in the system and your account is in good
  standing.  Your March statement will reflect the new credit line increase.

  We regret any inconvenience this may have caused you.

  Sincerely,                  [etc.]

I guess I was one of the lucky ones who didn't even notice the problem until
I received both letters simultaneously.  I would not have been at all amused
had I learned of this on an out-of-town trip trying to rent a car or something.


NSA Monitored McFarlane House, Magazine Reports [A few new items]

Don Hopkins <>
Fri, 6 Mar 87 13:07:58 EST
  The government secretly monitored the home telephones of Robert C.
McFarlane after he stepped down as President Reagan's national security
advisor, according to an article in the Progressive magazine.

  The magazine article said a National Security Agency electronic device was
found in the sewing closet of McFarlane's home in Bethesda in January during
a sweep ordered by his attorneys.

  Spokesmen for the NSA and for McFarlane refused comment. The White House
said it would have no comment until it saw the magazine, which is to be on
newsstands Saturday.

  The magazine quoted intelligence sources as saying that phone conversations 
of senior U.S. officials have been recorded for "archival purposes by the
Pentagon and the CIA and for communication security by the NSA."

  In the article entitled, "The White House Tapes, Again," the magazine
quoted sources as saying the program produced "a still-undisclosed archive
of recorded conversations" involving Reagan, Vice President Bush, former
White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and former National Security
Council staff members Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter.

  The article, written by freelance reporter Allan Nairn, said
McFarlane, who left the White House in December 1985, had been falsely
told that a security unit on his home phone had been deactivated.

  It said the unit uses a computerized encryption device that makes a
call unintelligible to anyone trying to listen in without the proper
equipment and authorized code.

  The article said that the monitoring of top officials generally seems
to have been done on a basis of express or implied consent and
therefore would not appear to violate federal communications laws.

  In McFarlane's case, however, the monitoring continued after he left
the White House, the magazine said. A government team, according to
the magazine, removed the unit's handset from McFarlane's home, but,
unknown to McFarlane, left intact the system's control panel that
enabled NSA to monitor calls, and in turn, record them.

  After leaving the national security adviser's job, McFarlane continued to
have access to classified material as unpaid consultant until the
Iran-contra affair was disclosed in November.  He took a secret trip to
Tehran last May in a fruitless effort to free American hostages in Lebanon.

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