Reviews of Recent Titles on Open Systems Subjects
by Peter G. Neumann
367 pages, $24.95
By Jim Johnson
When most of us think of "risks," we think of crossing the
street, driving down the road or venturing into a rough neighborhood. "Computer-related
risks" conjures up visions of viruses and malicious hackers; these
are relevant images, but the concept is actually deeper and broader than
many people perceive.
Computer-related risks are just that: unanticipated behavior in a system
that in some way makes use of a computer, with results that can potentially
disrupt operations or harm people or property. A risk can produce a safety
problem; a monetary loss; a security vulnerability; a loss of privacy; an
unexpected interruption in some kind of service; a loss of life; a power
failure; or simply an irritation. Sabotage by resentful employees as well
as errors by confused but well-intentioned users probably do more damage
than hackers and viruses, yet few of us would thinks of these as "risks."
On the other hand, two different roller coaster crashes that injured a total
of 42 people were considered computer-related, because the failures were
in a sensor-based monitoring system. Although attributed to human factors,
the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster was also computer-related, because
the relative complexity of the plant's systems made it more difficult for
the staff to control.
The use of autopiloting systems by airlines and rail systems is meant to
reduce passenger risk, but some recent, well-publicized tragedies have revealed
that such systems introduce new risks of their own, and many organizations
are reassessing what constitutes appropriate use of these systems. Most
of us would consider bugs in computer date programs to be at worst an irritant,
but leap years, time-zone shifts and errors in calibration sequences have
crashed entire ATM systems, damaged a steel factory in Germany when molten
steel wasn't given adequate time to cool and, in one incident in Colorado
that resulted in a death, caused computer-controlled street-crossing systems
Builders of complex information systems for government and industry engage
in some form of risk management and factor unforeseen problems into their
designs and projections. Yet deadlines, unexpected events and system failures
impact even the best plans. All too often, hindsight reveals that these
mishaps could have been predicted, avoided or at least managed more effectively.
The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, for example, was initially
ascribed to a failed O-ring, but subsequent investigations also revealed
instances of disregarded warnings from engineers. We could say that the
January 1990 blockage of approximately five million calls over AT&T's
telephone network was caused by an obscure bug in some C code, but compilers
could also be faulted in failing to flag the error; as could testing procedures
that were extensive but nonetheless inadequate.
Peter Neumann, principal scientist at the computer science lab of SRI International
in Palo Alto, CA, knows about computer-related risks. In 1985 he started
the popular online Risks Forum, which is gatewayed to the comp.risks Usenet
newsgroup. He's also a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery
and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and writes the
"Inside Risks" column for Communications of the ACM.
In the preface to Computer-Related Risks, Neumann makes it clear
that he intends to target several distinct audiences. This multifaceted
approach has produced a book with several personalities, the most illustrative
(and most entertaining) of which is a relentless recitation of technology-related
incidents and anecdotes from recent history. Neumann's eye for irony and
frequent use of puns, combined with the alternately hilarious and horrifying
accounts of mishaps and disasters, make this the kind of book that will
make you want to stay up late reading. Also, the seemingly endless accounts
of disasters and near-disasters resulting from ignored procedures, human
error and obscure software bugs is enough to give anyone the willies about
our civilization's dance along the technological bleeding edge.
Fun and Useful
As entertaining as this book may be, its application of humor and spectacle
doesn't detract from the analytical usefulness. Solid reasoning and occasional
forays into dense technical jargon remind the reader that Neumann is, first
and foremost, a scientist. Each chapter's case histories are graphed according
to source of risk, illustrating which kinds of risks have more predictable
causes and which are more varied in origin. Chapter summaries facilitate
skimming and review, and the end of each chapter offers a list of textbook-style
"challenges" that invite the reader to analyze the cases presented
and devise strategies for crisis prevention and risk management. Together,
these attributes assert the book's usefulness as a text in institutions
of higher learning, as well as a tool for management evaluation and professional
Chapter 1 is a general introduction to the topic, offering an overview of
the nature of risks. In chapters 2 through 6, Neumann groups his cases according
to their specific attributes: reliability, safety, security, privacy and
well-being. Chapter 7 is devoted to risk reduction and the overall systems
view of risks; chapter 8 covers the more human side; and chapter 9 offers
conclusions and comments about the implications of our increasing dependence
on incredibly complex technology. A glossary is provided for nonengineers;
a lengthy index, a bibliography, an appendix on background materials, notes
and references top it off.
Some nontechnical readers may get befuddled when Neumann occasionally lapses
into geek-speak, but skipping over these parts doesn't harm one's comprehension
of the material, and engineers are sure to benefit from it. Likewise, Neumann's
precise terminology and categorization of risk attributes (differentiating
between "risk," "threat" and "vulnerability,"
for example) may seem like hair-splitting to some, but general readers can
easily and safely ignore these references, which will appeal to those seeking
a more exacting approach.
Emphasis on Analysis
Although suggested procedures for minimizing risks are provided, a significantly
greater number of pages is devoted to the case briefs; there is a greater
emphasis on analysis of risks than on their prevention. The book is more
of an exploration of events and concepts than a guide to how to play it
safe. This might be due to the author's strongly held belief that our technological
world cannot be made a safe place and that we'd better accept the idea.
Neumann writes, "No system can ever be guaranteed to work acceptably
all of the time. In a complex system, it is essentially impossible to predict
all the sources of catastrophic failure. This caveat is true even in well-engineered
systems, where the sources of failure may be subtle."
His emphasis on analysis is more a function of the nature of risk itself
than a personal attitude on the part of the author, and he's certainly no
Luddite. Since a broad, cross-industry, how-to-be-safe methodology simply
doesn't exist, there isn't a viable alternative to conducting a comprehensive
risk analysis specific to one's own situation; to believe otherwise would
only increase the likelihood of disaster. Managers and executives should
hear the ring of truth in his conclusions and recommendations; among other
things, Neumann points the finger at wishful thinking and corner-cutting
in the design of systems and procedures. In asserting the concept of "defensive
design," he also takes upper-echelon scapegoating to task: "It
is self-defeating to pin the blame on a donkey--for example, on a designer,
programmer, system operator or penetrator, or worse yet, on the computer.
Blame is often simplistically misplaced. Several factors may be involved.
Especially in distributed systems, blame is typically distributed."
Neumann's recommendations for minimizing risks are thorough and sound, if
not quite as much fun as the other sections of the book. His discussion
of methods useful to managers, executives and staffers alike makes this
book an important read for everyone involved in the production of complex
systems. We all know customers, managers and marketers who don't want to
hear this expert's assertion that "guaranteed system behavior is impossible
to achieve," but he deserves kudos for being a credentialed person
who is willing to tell it like it is.
Jim Johnson is a certified personnel consultant and the
principal of Options Unlimited, specializing in the placement of Unix professionals
in the Washington, DC, area. He can be reached at email@example.com.
To purchase books in this column, contact your local bookseller.