Thursday, June 18, 2009

Software Problems with a Breath Alcohol Detector

This is an excellent lesson in the security problems inherent in trusting proprietary software:

After two years of attempting to get the computer based source code for the Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C, defense counsel in State v. Chun were successful in obtaining the code, and had it analyzed by Base One Technologies, Inc.

Draeger, the manufacturer maintained that the system was perfect, and that revealing the source code would be damaging to its business. They were right about the second part, of course, because it turned out that the code was terrible.

2. Readings are Not Averaged Correctly: When the software takes a series of readings, it first averages the first two readings. Then, it averages the third reading with the average just computed. Then the fourth reading is averaged with the new average, and so on. There is no comment or note detailing a reason for this calculation, which would cause the first reading to have more weight than successive readings. Nonetheless, the comments say that the values should be averaged, and they are not.

3. Results Limited to Small, Discrete Values: The A/D converters measuring the IR readings and the fuel cell readings can produce values between 0 and 4095. However, the software divides the final average(s) by 256, meaning the final result can only have 16 values to represent the five-volt range (or less), or, represent the range of alcohol readings possible. This is a loss of precision in the data; of a possible twelve bits of information, only four bits are used. Further, because of an attribute in the IR calculations, the result value is further divided in half. This means that only 8 values are possible for the IR detection, and this is compared against the 16 values of the fuel cell.

4. Catastrophic Error Detection Is Disabled: An interrupt that detects that the microprocessor is trying to execute an illegal instruction is disabled, meaning that the Alcotest software could appear to run correctly while executing wild branches or invalid code for a period of time. Other interrupts ignored are the Computer Operating Property (a watchdog timer), and the Software Interrupt.

Basically, the system was designed to return some sort of result regardless.

This is important. As we become more and more dependent on software for evidentiary and other legal applications, we need to be able to carefully examine that software for accuracy, reliability, etc. Every government contract for breath alcohol detectors needs to include the requirement for public source code. "You can't look at our code because we don't want you to" simply isn't good enough.


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