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The top 10 catastrophes in the history of IT

JAX Editorial Team
Burning computer image via Shutterstock

We take a look at 10 epic events that have left programmers licking their wounds and the world reeling from the consequences of computer bugs and programming errors.

Malfunctions in critical applications can have catastrophic consequences, in the truest sense of the word – think corporate bankruptcy, billions of dollars in damage, or worst of all, loss of human life. While bugs are part of a developer’s everyday life, and usually quickly fixed, the most dangerous bugs are those that go undetected for a long period of time within productive systems, causing an array of problems that can quickly turn into a total nightmare.

While this is only the tip of the iceberg, the following 10 software disasters paint a remarkable story of error and heartache.

Our catastrophic list

  1. Britain’s Child Support Agency meltdown

In 2004, Britain’s Child Support Agency implemented a new IT system that resulted in massive over and under-payments, along with 240,000 cases simply not being processed. It had been estimated that 1.9 million people were wired too much money by the new system, and 700,000 others paid too little.

At the time of the new software’s release, the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs had ordered a rewrite, meaning serious errors were emitted with the rollout and 500 known bugs were left unresolved.

  1. Mariner 1 launch failure

In 1962, the first spacecraft of the American Mariner program was launched as a Venus flyby mission then almost immediately destroyed, with more than 18 million U.S. dollars down the drain. Faulty application of the guidance commands were noted as contributing to the failure.

While the errors of the mission are conflicting amongst various accounts, its been said that a programmer entered an incorrect, hand-written formula into the source code.

  1. False arrests due to faulty database migration

In 2011, an Australian police database incorrectly transferred 3,600 records from a state’s new court system to the state’s police database, resulting in false arrests for bail breaches that never occurred. The new court system was intended to allow documents to be lodged electronically in order to cut costs and speed up the process.

Other anomalies within the system included the rejection of apprehended violence orders, incorrect dates for driver’s license disqualification and incorrect criminal records.

  1. Soviet war games

In 1983, the nuclear early warning system of the Soviet armed forces claimed it had detected ballistic missiles launched from the United States. Fortunately, this was later correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, avoiding all-out nuclear warfare.

It was subsequently determined that the launch detection system, still in its initial stages of use, had a bug that caused sun light on high-altitude clouds to be identified as intercontinental ballistic missiles.

  1. German toll disaster

In 2003, German plans for a truck toll to be introduced on the autobahn went belly-up, with trouble related to toll hardware being incorrectly programmed. Eventually rolling out in 2006, the German government claimed a total of 3.5 billion Euros in damages and a punitive fine of 1 billion Euros from Toll Collect, the Berlin-based company.

This claim from the German government is the largest ever in the history of tolling, with the companies involved still reeling from the now fractured relations.

SEE ALSO: One in six IT projects runs out of control

  1. Identity crisis in the U.K.

In 1999, the British Passport Agency had attempted to implement a new Siemens computer system without prior testing, resulting in the failure to issue passports on time. It had been reported that more than 500 people missed their departure dates for holidays and over 500,000 people had to wait for their passport applications to be processed.

The National Audit Office announced that the whole fiasco cost taxpayers more than 12 million Pounds, with the Passport Agency also losing its Charter Mark – awarded for excellence in public service – as a result of the blunder.

  1. Deadly over-exposure in Panama

In 2000, patients receiving treatment for cancer at the Instituto Oncologico Nacional of Panama were administered lethal doses of radiation due to software changes calculated by medical physicists. Unknown to the operators, the modification resulted in overexposures to patients and 17 deaths were linked to the accident.

The three Panamanian physicists were tried for second-degree murder. The U.S. based company responsible for the software, Multidata Systems International, have run into legal trouble over the incident.

  1. Chocolate overload at Cadbury

In 2005, a technical glitch in the U.K. caused the overproduction of chocolate bars, resulting in significant price reductions for Cadbury in order to clear their excess inventory. The installation of a new SAP-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system was directly linked to Cadbury’s first quarter losses of 2006, calculated at 32 million Pounds.

While the IT issues have now been resolved, the implementation of the new ERP system was also problematic in Australia, where it was first introduced in 2002.

  1. Patriot bugs

In 1991, the Gulf War’s casualties were added to when the American Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system failed to intercept an Iraqi ballistic missile that hit the barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 14th Quartermaster Detachment. A software error in the system’s handling of timestamps was the cause.

An earlier glitch during the war also occurred when the first combat use of the Patriot system apparently detected a missile aimed at Saudi Arabia that never existed. The incident was widely misreported as the first successful interception of an enemy ballistic missile in history.

  1. Ariane 5 test flight self-destruction

In 1996, the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 test flight launch failed, with the rocket self-destructing 37 seconds after launch because of a malfunction in the control software. The rocket was off course, due to software originally written for the Ariane 4 rocket that was used unnecessarily without considerations of efficiency between the two models.

Pre-flight tests hadn’t been performed under simulated Ariane 5 flight conditions, so the error wasn’t discovered before launch. The Ariane 5’s flight path differed considerably from the previous models.

Checks and balances

While not every technical glitch is a horror story, the above list gives us an idea of what can happen when the required amount of testing, focus or money isn’t supplied to a certain project. Lack of risk calculation, problems with software compatibility, and missing skills in implementing a new technology are all variables that can sometimes lead to disaster.

Do you know of any other IT catastrophes to add to the list? Please let us know in the comments.

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