Category Archives: Security

Ariane 5 flight 501

Wired picked up some of the details of the Prius software bug that I mentioned this past Sunday. It looks like several major news outlets carried a story on this as far back as May 2005. Wired mentioned the Prius troubles in an article called “History’s Worst Software Bugs“. I am disappointed that they didn’t bring up the fact that dealers are still selling the buggy version of the car.

One of Wired’s “worst” is the Arianne 5 flight 501 disaster. Since I am personally familiar with the event (from work at UIowa Dept of Physics and Astronomy) I might be biased, but I must say that while I’m not sure it was one of history’s worst, it certainly makes a great case study. I use it regularly in presentations on risk management. For example, the backup code was the exact same rev as the primary, and thus the bug (floating point error) that caused a failure in the primary…yup, you guessed it…oops.

Wired suggests a Wikipedia version of events, but their second link points to the original European Space Agency ESA) report “ane5rep.html” (also found hosted at MIT). The ESA provided a very clear analysis of the source of the problem:

“The reason why the active SRI 2 did not send correct attitude data was that the unit had declared a failure due to a software exception. The OBC could not switch to the back-up SRI 1 because that unit had already ceased to function during the previous data cycle (72 milliseconds period) for the same reason as SRI 2.”

But even more interesting is that the floating point error itself could have been handled many ways, or the trajectory tested more accurately, but “It was the decision to cease the processor operation which finally proved fatal. […] The reason behind this drastic action lies in the culture within the Ariane programme of only addressing random hardware failures.”

Dare I say, the risk of software bugs was mis-managed?

Sony gets a memo

The Inquirer reports today that Sony is getting sued, by the ALCEI (Electronic Frontiers Italy):

“According to the press release here, and the complaint here, the Italian group ALCEI is suing Sony over the rootkitting DRM infection.”

This is a response to Mark Russinovich’s rather thorough and powerful complaint about his discovery of a Sony root-kit on his Windows PC after installing a player from one of their music CDs.

No luck with the trackback yet, so I’ve cross-posted some of this on Schneier’s blog as well.

DoS attacks not illegal in UK?

From ComputerWeekly:

A judge has ruled that denial of service attacks are not illegal under the UK’s outdated Computer Misuse Act.


The youth had been accused of sending five million e-mails to his ex-boss as part of a DoS attack that crashed the company’s e-mail server.

He was charged under section 3 of the 1990 act, which covers unauthorised data modification and system tampering.

His defence argued that sending a flood of unsolicited e-mails did not cause unauthorised data modification or tamper with systems, as an e-mail server was there for the purpose of receiving e-mails.

Lessons from Guy Fawkes

Many years ago I rode through the English country-side with an Archaeologist (her house was filled with bones from the Mary Rose excavation) who pointed out the economic reasons for the hedge-rows, the meaning of every stained-glass window…and, as we passed the Holbeche House in Staffordshire, she told me the end of the Gunpowder Plot.

Even though I had spent some time in rural Devonshire (with people who said getting “pissed” on home-made hard cider and dancing half-naked with a burning barrel of hot tar on their back is one of the highlights of the year) I was not prepared for the reality of the Guy Fawkes story.

It was one thing to think about the Gunpowder Plot as just another excuse for lighting bonfires and having a party, but bearing witness to the house where the men who gave themselves up were shot, well, that was a different story entirely. The fact was a handful of men who wanted to end the opressive treatment of non-Protestants very nearly killed the King and all his successors. Not long after I couldn’t help but think it odd that the English celebrate a failed coup attempt essentially the same way that the US celebrates independence. Actually, maybe it would be more fitting to compare the Fawkes ritual to Burning Man, since Bonfire Night (supoosedly to celebrate a King’s survival) usually involves burning an effigy along with the fireworks.

Guy Fawkes

Anyway, the BBC has posted some interesting reports this year that make the obvious comparison to today’s fear of terrorism:

    “A plot to blow up the houses of parliament, with the monarch and politicians inside, has just failed. What can the government do to restore calm? Four hundred years ago the authorities in England faced exactly this question when they foiled a plot by disillusioned Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament.”

Many have suggested that Fawkes was tortured extensively and some say his shaky signature (Guido Fawkes) is sufficient proof. But the BBC quotes a historian from Cambridge who says “Victims often tell you what you want to hear, whereas the torturer – especially in this particular case – wants the facts. Torture isn’t the only or indeed the best way of getting at those facts. The authorities in 1605 knew that, and used other techniques to win secrets.”

Toyota dealers ignore serious software bug

While many people regularly debate regulations and liabilities for software security bugs and vulnerabilities (e.g. on Schneier’s blog here and here), I thought I’d reference a November 3rd, 2005 bulletin from Consumer Affairs that Toyota dealers are selling cars that may “suddenly stall or shut down” due to a software bug:

While the Toyota Motor Corp. is notifying 75,000 Prius owners of a software glitch that can cause the hybrid cars to suddenly stall or shut down, the company is apparently continuing to sell the hybrid vehicles that carry the software problem. […] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into the stalling problems.

As a side note, I have written previously on Schneier’s blog about the very important role security experts can play in all this (February 25, 2005 12:20 PM):

…the next time you run into public figures like Howard Schmidt, please remind him that he is actually “pro-regulation” when he says that we need fair and balanced laws.

I also debated this with Howard at length at a conference in Scotsdale, AZ in 2004 and again with him via email for a while in 2005 but I apparently did not make a big impact on him. Fundamentally I think his heart’s in the right place, but his extreme view that individual developers are solely responsible for bad code is an incredibly naive view of the economics of software development. Schneier appears to have more balanced perspective.