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Checking Grades On-line

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The Chicago Tribune had a story on the increasing use of electronic grade books by Chicago area schools that both students and parents can access on-line. These accessible grade books started in the high schools, but are now migrating to middle and elementary schools. The idea is to create a tighter link between schools and the home, but some teens view it as an intrusion.

As a parent, I have mixed feelings. I know growing up I would not have been thrilled about my parents having access to every grade I received on every assignment each day, but as a parent I am interested in knowing where my children are having difficulties as well as excelling. Our school district doesn't have electronic grading yet, and so I see my children's homework once a week when they bring home a large folder with all of it stuffed in there.

The story doesn't talk about it, but I suspect that some teachers aren't thrilled to death about electronic grade books either, as I am sure many parents let the teacher know when they think their child's grade is too low. The helicopter parent problem can't be helped by it.

In one way, I am glad our school district doesn't have electronic grading, since I would also would want to know not only the grade but the assignment. This would inevitably lead to trouble, since whenever I found that an instructors made an error (like when one teacher was trying to teach my daughter that copper is naturally magnetic since a "copper fastener" was attracted to a magnet) I would have a hard time letting it slip.

2007 Bad Year for Privacy: 2008 Worse?

The Washington Post had two stories on data security and privacy today. The first concerns a report by the Identity Theft Resource Center that more than 79 million records were reportedly compromised in the United States through December 18th, compared with nearly 20 million records reported in all of 2006.

The story also reported that Attrition.org estimates that more than 162 million records were compromised worldwide through December 21, compared with 49 million last year.

The number of data breaches has grown because there are more legal requirements on companies and governments to report them, but the number reported is also low since not everyone is required to or reports data breaches even when they should. As I have written about earlier, the UK government is just now owning up to a large number of data breaches that occurred months ago.

The other Post story concerns how easy it is to find a person's social security number on the web because local and state governments routinely post public records containing them. The Federal government has banned the publication of sensitive personal information like social security numbers since 2001. More recently states like Virginia and Maryland have also banned their publication as well. However, the law does not cover the hundreds of thousands of documents already published that contain social security numbers and that are accessible on-line. In Virginia, the law also doesn't seem to cover current arrest warrants or court summons.

So, as we begin this new year, anyone care to speculate on the date of the first major (let's say 1 million or more records) of the year in the US? Elsewhere in the world? And how long it takes from breach to disclosure of the breach?

Patriot Missile Software Flaws Long Known By Army

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In response to a $20 million lawsuit stemming from the friendly-fire shoot down in Iraq of a Navy F-18 and the loss of its pilot in 2003 by a Patriot air-defense missile, Raytheon, who builds the Patriot, said in court documents that the Patriot had at the time difficulty distinguishing between friendly and enemy aircraft which the US Army knew all about, the Boston Globe reports.

"The Army was aware that there had been documented instances in which the Patriot System in training, test and/or combat, failed to perform to operational requirements, including specifically its misidentification of friendly vehicles as enemy targets."

However, the Army believed that the benefits of deploying the system were greater than the risks posed.

Both the Army and Raytheon say that improvements to the system have been made, but they won't say whether Patriot can yet distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft.

Cheating Websites Proliferate

A story in this week's Boston Globe details that proliferation of websites dedicated to selling the answers to hundreds of professional exams, from computer technician to heavy crane operator to pharmacist.

This follows a previous story that the Globe published earlier in December on tens of thousands of US Army personnel getting answers to their professional skills exams - many of which are required to be passed to become eligible for promotion. In this case, the Army has known about the cheating for over 8 years, and has done nothing about it. The problem is now so large, that the Army can't possibly bring everyone to task.

So, I guess cheaters do prosper.

Wal-Mart Gift Cards Don't Give

A computer problem in a third-party system operated by ValueLink, which is owned by Colorado-based First Data Corp., caused â''sporadic issuesâ'' with Wal-Mart's gift card verifications, affecting a â''small percentageâ'' of gift card transactions on Wednesday. The day after Christmas is usually a very busy shopping day, so even though only a "small percentage" of customers were affected, it still meant that lots of Wally shoppers were not happy.

According to news reports Nancy Etheredge, a spokesman for First Data Corp., released the following statement Thursday â''We have identified a sporadic system occurrence that caused some consumers to experience delays in gift card verifications on December 26, 2007. The problem has been isolated and we are working closely with our customers to prevent this situation from occurring in the future. The system is performing normally, and we regret any inconvenience this has caused.â'' Etheredge confirmed that multiple merchants were involved, but she declined to name them.

Target Corp., a prime competitor of Wal-Mart, happily pointed out that its customers didn't experience any problems.

Victoria's Smartcard Myki System In More Trouble

The Australian newspaper Herald-Sun reported over the weekend that the A$500m smartcard Myki ticketing project that is already 9 months late, is looking to be even later and cost a lot more money.

The government of Victoria awarded the contract for development of a smartcard ticketing system for public transport to the Keane Australia Micropayment Consortium (Kamco) in July 2005, with a planned go live (public trials) date of March 2007. The new system, if ever completed, will allow passengers to use a single plastic smartcard to travel on a network that spans 270 railway stations, 480 trams and 1,650 buses. Passengers would be able to store value on their cards via self-service machines, the telephone or the Internet.

Software issues have caused many of the schedule and cost problems, surprise, surprise.

The official current projected date is for the Myki system to become fully operational by June 2008, although the government is today saying they hope to see it operational by the end of 2008, but the smart money is now betting for sometime in 2009.

Epidemic of UK Data Breaches Continues Unabated

The London Telegraph reported over the weekend that nine National Health Service (NHS) trusts have admitting to losing over 168,000 patient records. The NHS says that its nothing to worry about since the security of the information went "way beyond" that used for internet banking. However, it also conceded today that it did not know exactly the details of the patient information lost, nor how it was lost.

Those two statements give one confidence, don't they?

In other news, the Royal Mail admitted that last month it sent pension information to the wrong addresses. About 5,500 pensioners in the Leeds area using Post Office card accounts (POCA) have been told that they may have received someone else's information. Post Office officials also said they think only about 120 people actually may have received the wrong information, but they, too, can't be sure.

Regardless, officials said, "The Post Office and its suppliers have apologised for this mistake, customers will be sent their correct statement shortly."

IRS Wastes $3.5 million on ID-Card Program

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The Washington Post reported today that the Internal Revenue Service Inspector General released an audit that found that the IRS wasted $3.5 million on a new personnel identification system project required to meet Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-12 Initiative. The projected cost of the project is $421 million over 14 years, and so far around $30 million has been obligated to it.

Among the waste noted in the audit report was $1,940,397 spent on a computer security system that the IRS now doesn't plan to use; $431,035 to establish and maintain an identification badge laboratory to create a test environment for issuing identification badges but the laboratory has now been closed and is deemed unnecessary, and; $188,160 paid to a contractor for 1 person billed at $128 per hour to provide clerical support (e.g., maintaining calendars and meetings, processing trip reports, etc.) over an 11-month period.

The audit said that the contract "statements of work were not specific enough to identify the deliverables and were too general to track the program's work requirements effectively." In other words, the contractors had every incentive to deliver useless services at the highest costs possible.

Cost Overruns Plague UK Public Sector IT Projects

ComputerWeekly reports that a study published by the European Services Strategy Unit claims that the majority of the 105 outsourced public sector Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects they looked into had significant cost overruns, delays and or terminations. The 105 projects had a total contract value of £29.5 billion with cost overruns totaling £9.0 billion. Within these 105 projects, 57% of contracts experienced cost overruns with the average percentage cost overrun being 30.5%. Some 33% of contracts suffered major delays while 30% of contracts were terminated.

One reason for the problems encountered was that public sector officials often only focus on the procurement stage of projects, without considering the cost of implementation and training, while another was that the private sector contractors overstate their ability to deliver and underestimate the complexity of public service provision.

One more study to add to the dozens of others all depressingly finding the same thing.

Snooping at the IRS

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The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported a few days ago that there has been an increase in the number of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees illegally looking at confidential taxpayer info. As the WSJ says, "Although the number of browsing cases is tiny compared with the IRS's overall work force, the number went up in the latest year. Officials at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, say they opened 521 investigations in fiscal 2007, up from 448 the prior year -- and the highest since a 1998 taxpayer-privacy law was enacted."

"During the latest year, there were 219 "adverse administrative actions" against IRS workers, including firings and suspensions, a TIGTA official says. That's up sharply from 104 such actions the prior year."

No word from the UK on the number of HM Revenue & Custom employees who have been caught snooping on UK taxpayers.

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Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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