Peter Smith (Global) - IT Scare Stories: Bugs, Bangs and Ballistics

This article looks at IT Scare Stories over the last 20 years, including the Millennium Bug.

It's hard to believe that this time 13 years ago; I was in the middle of a hectic round of pre-apocalyptic interviews with the media as the author of "Surviving the Millennium Meltdown."

Yes, I admit it. I did write a book describing the effects of a global computer meltdown caused by an early MS-DOS programmer failing to note that using a two-digit year could cause a lot of problems when we hit the year 2000.

With the benefit of hindsight, and approximately €600bn spent on upgrading systems, we all know that the bug didn't bite. But was it never that much of an issue, or was disaster only avoided by the hype that led to everyone upgrading?

Many industry-watchers commented that it was largely due to a growing awareness of the need for effective disaster recovery fostered by ‘Y2K' projects, that the world's trading systems were up and running in just days after 9/11. Some good may have come from Y2K, but the US Government's reaction to the terrorist threat has caused some great examples of ‘computer causes chaos.'

One example is that the U.S. government's Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) now keeps track of everyone flying around the country. One Saturday in 2007 a network card in the CBP's office at Los Angeles Airport (LAX) failed and green screened the whole CBP system. Not knowing who was where, the agency shut down LAX, and 17,000 planes were stuck on the ground across the US for up to ten hours.

I wonder if while they sat on the ground, those passengers gave any thought to the fact that another computer glitch, just 14 years earlier nearly tripped Armageddon - a Russian early warning system announced the start of WWIII by reporting that the US had launched five ballistic missiles towards Moscow.

A cool-headed Russian officer saved the day, reasoning that if the US wanted to knock out the USSR, they'd send more than five missiles. The consequent Soviet enquiry discovered that WWIII was nearly started by their early warning system's inability to tell the difference between sunlight reflecting off clouds and a rocket!

Another airborne project that got grounded by a computer glitch is Airbus Industrie's flagship - the A380. The giant ‘plane entered traffic in 2009, two years later than planned, after engineers building the first one discovered that the wiring looms, which were assembled in Germany, didn't fit the rest of the aircraft. The reason was simple version control - the Germans were using an earlier version of the CAD software than their colleagues were so as data moved, measurements were incorrectly translated, costing Airbus an estimated $6bn in lost profits.

Today Airbus is rightly proud of its safety record, and while there are myriad tales of computer errors causing expense and threatening disaster, from crashing spacecraft to exploding satellites, surprisingly, one of the most expensive in the last few years concerns the simplest piece of hardware - batteries.

The exploding battery saga started in 2006 when a Dell laptop self-combusted at a trade show in Japan. No one was hurt, but product recalls of iPods, Macbooks and many other Laptops were estimated to cost manufacturers over £120m. Matsushita alone was said to have recalled 54 million devices.

So the good news is that despite the hype, computers themselves rarely go wrong - just about every case of computer-created chaos is down to human error, either in the programming or in supply chain.

And as for the millennium bug? Perhaps the biggest benefactor wasn't the computer industry, but the makers of tinned food.

Anyone fancy some baked beans? We've still got plenty!


ByPeter Smith, Engagement Practice Leader, Marketing Doctors and freelance journalist