What a lot of people don’t realize is how much our society relies on computers for…well, everything. They’re pretty much the beating heart of modern civilization, and are involved in operating everything from government to finance to power.
The trouble with computers is that, well…they’re far from perfect. Most of these systems are almost obsessively managed, so truly crippling bugs are, thankfully, quite rare. When they do happen, however…
People tend to take notice of them- in the same way that you’d notice a freight train screaming down the street of your hometown. While on fire. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some of the most damaging computer bugs of recent history.
Google: The Internet Is Malware!
As the Internet’s largest and best-known search engine, Google is the place where millions upon millions of users go to let get their daily dose of the ‘net. Their staff usually does a pretty good job of keeping track of which websites aren’t safe, maintaining a rather comprehensive list of malicious attack sites. Unfortunately, one day back in 2009, one of Google’s programmers made a bit of an oops and typed a backslash into the list….without adding a website URL to it. The end result?
For a few hours, Google marked every single website on the Internet as unsafe – including their own. Oops.
The East Coast Loses Power
When you’re a sysop for something as vital as a center which controls the entire power grid of the United States East Coast (and parts of Canada’s) you’d think having a work ethic would be a good thing, no? You’d think that, if you see an unusual or bizarre error message or alarm pop up, you’d investigate it, right?
Apparently, an unnamed General Electric system operator saw an alarm pop up notifying him of an error. Rather than do the sensible thing and investigate it, he simply disabled the alarm. Take a wild guess as to what happened next.
That single bug resulted in a crushing cascade of errors, leading to the second worst power outage in history – all because one of the fellows running the system couldn’t be bothered to investigate one simple bug.
Banking and Finance
In all honesty, I said computer glitches are pretty rare and don’t often cause trouble. The exception to that, unsettlingly enough, seems to be with financial institutions. From rumors that the May 6 2010 stock market crash was caused by a computer bug, to entire financial networks crashing, to security bugs (and human error) resulting in thousands of users having their financial (or personal) information compromised, there’s a plethora of sad tales which involve something as simple as a few misplaced lines of code ruining the lives of countless consumers.
On the bright side, for every institution with security holes, there are plenty of other institutions which take their security very, very seriously. Take Visa’s new data center, for example – it even has a moat.
Treatment of cancer via radiation therapy is nothing new- nor is computerization of the process. An incident at the National Cancer Institute, in Panama City stands as a reminder of just how dangerous software quirks can be, if they’re embedded in the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) program – particularly when combined with sheer human stupidity.
The therapy software in question, created by Multidata Systems, had a number of bugs in its code that caused it to miscalculate the proper dosages of radiation to be given to patients undergoing radiation therapy. The software was designed to allow a therapist to draw the placement of metal shielding blocks onscreen. Here’s where the problem comes in. The doctors, for some reason, wanted five people to be present, rather than four. Unfortunately, the default shielding blocks for the program were set to four. They discovered they could jimmy it, however, by drawing all five blocks as a single block with a hollow middle.
Of course, they neglected to consider a tiny little, life-ending glitch: drawing the hole one way gives the correct dosage, while drawing it another way prescribes double the correct dosage. They probably could have avoided a crisis if they’d run the calculations by hand, but why should they bother? It’s not like they’re being paid a mint to ensure the safety of their patients, right?
You can imagine what happened next.
Eight dead and twenty ill patients later, the five boneheaded professionals are booked for murder.
A Hair’s Breadth from World War III
1995′s Norwegian rocket launch isn’t the only time we came one push of a button away from a nuclear holocaust. Back in 1983, a rather considerable glitch in the USSR’s early warning satellites mistook the reflection of sunlight off of the tops of clouds for missile launches. While the USSR had designed software to filter out such false reports, wouldn’t you know it- the software borked itself. The Russian system sprang into action, notifying the top brass that war had been declared, and their entire arsenal should immediately be launched at the states.
Thankfully, unlike with some of our other stories, common sense prevailed in this one- Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov narrowly averted the apocalypse, flagging the message as faulty, reasoning that if the States were really serious about wiping Russia off the map in a series of radioactive explosions, they’d launch a lot more than five missiles.
The PCMech.com weekly newsletter has been running strong for over 8 years. Sign up to get tech news, updates and exclusive content - right in your inbox. Also get (several) free gifts.