Risky problems are as great today as they were when we first
set out to expose and eradicate them.
the complete RISKS archives ( risks.org).
Over those early years, there was considerable
debate within the ACM Council about ACM’s role in
representing real-world concerns regarding the use of
computers. The discussions within the Council that
inspired the establishment of the ACM Risks Forum
are described at length in the message from ACM’s
president at the time, Adele Goldberg, in the February 1985 issue of CACM. This was placed under the
aegis of the ACM Committee on Computers and
Public Policy (CCPP), the chairmanship of which I
then inherited from Dan McCracken. ACM thereby
demonstrated a genuine recognition of the importance of the social implications of our technologies.
The first RISKS issue on August 1, 1985 (see cat-
less.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/1.01.html) includes a summary
of Adele Goldberg’s message with an excerpt of the
charter, an agenda for the future, a summary of some
of the incidents known at the time culled from SEN
(which grew into the Illustrative Risks index), items
on the strategic defense initiative and Dave Parnas’s
resignation from the antimissile defense advisory
group, a pointer to Herb Lin’s analysis of that software, a minireview by Peter Denning, and a note
from Jim Horning.
Five years after that, CACM Editor-in-Chief Peter
Denning and others urged me to establish the
monthly column that became “Inside Risks.” I am
enormously indebted to the members of CCPP—
which then included Denning, Parnas, Horning,
Nancy Leveson, Jerry Saltzer, and others—who have
served as an astute expert review panel for each succeeding would-be column and provided wise counsel
on other issues as well.
The overwhelming conclusion from this body of
material is that the risky problems are as great today
as they were when we first set out to expose and eradicate them. Although the prevention mechanisms
have improved somewhat, it is evident that we have
not been advancing sufficiently rapidly in the development of mass-marketplace systems and custom
applications that are sufficiently trustworthy—
despite the tangible gains and research advances I
noted in the first paragraph of this essay. Worse yet,
various factors have outpaced those mechanisms,
including increased complexity of systems, increased
worldwide dependence on information technology
and the ever-growing Internet, increasingly critical
applications to which that technology is being
entrusted, the general ease with which antisocial acts
can be committed, and the ubiquity of potential
attackers. Thus, we seem to be falling farther behind
as time goes by. In particular, the huge expansion in
the scope and pervasiveness of the Internet is creating
many challenges for our community.
One of the biggest challenges for ACM members
and for the computer community as a whole is bridging
the gap between research and development, and the gap
between theory and practice. Clearly, we need to devote
greater attention to improving development practices.
In its first 50 years, CACM has been a useful product of the Association for Computing Machinery.
However, in the next 50 years, the ACM needs to
become—both in spirit and in reality—something
more like the Association for Computing Methods or
perhaps Methodologists, stressing the vital role of
people in the urgent pursuit of transforming computer system development into a true engineering discipline that makes optimal use of the advances of the
past 50 years in the context of critical system applications that use the resulting systems wisely. In particular, dramatic changes are needed in developing
trustworthy systems that are explicitly designed for
human usability for all users, and that encourage well-informed people to take on appropriate responsibilities in environments in which it is clearly unwise to
trust technology blindly. For example, see the recommendations of the National Research Council study
relating to secure systems and networks, summarized
in the October 2007 CACM “Inside Risks” column
and the columns relating to the needs for total-system
understanding, education, and consistent application
of good system-oriented principles.
In 1954, Norbert Wiener wrote about the use of
human beings in the context of what he foresaw as the
future of computer systems. In 2008, we need to
remember that although ACM seeks to improve computer-related technologies and their applications, the
purpose of that technology is ultimately to improve
the quality of the life for everyone on our planet. c
PETER G. NEUMANN ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Principal Scientist
at SRI International’s Computer Science Lab in Menlo Park, CA. He
also chairs the ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy and
is the moderator of the ACM Risks Forum.