The 10 greatest catastrophes caused by PC carelessness

March 2, 2007

The 10 greatest catastrophes caused by PC carelessness The saying, ”computers are only as smart as…”, seems to be the most appropriate phrase when describing something that has gone terribly wrong. Often times,  errors spawn from a programmer overlooking a line of code; however,  the most common computer errors can be found between the keyboard and the chair, and  you’ll see, even the small mistakes can cost companies billions of dollars.

Here are our picks for the ten greatest catastrophes caused by PC carelessness:

10. In July 2006, a computer error in Verizon’s system led to the overcharging of nearly 11,000 customers in the mid-Atlantic region. The programming error led to extra charges that ranged from $200 to thousands of dollars. That’s one “extra charge” a customer can’t overlook.

9. In 1989, a computer related error resulted in over 40,000 Paris citizens receiving letters charging them with such crimes as murder, extortion, and organized prostitution. The letter was intended to be a simple traffic ticket.

8. Arguably the most renowned computer error comes from the Microsoft founder himself, Bill Gates. In 1998, during a public demonstration of Windows 98, Gates was left embarrassed after trying to simply plug a scanner into his PC. The audience anxiously watched as Mr. Gates’ own OS crashed.

7. Scientific America (November, 1998) reported the case where a crew member of the USS Yorktown guided missile cruiser mistakenly entered a zero into the system, causing a “divide by zero” error in the software. The errors cascaded throughout the cruiser, causing the shutdown of the propulsion system and leaving the Yorktown a sitting target for several hours.

6. In 1994, just one line of code caused a Chemical Bank in New York to deduct twice the amount that their customers withdrew from the ATM machines. The code sent a copy of the withdrawal to a second computer system, which deducted the money a second time. Around $5 million was mistakenly withdrawn from customers accounts due to the bank’s “software error.”

5. In the early 1980s, a device named Therac 25 was used to beam radiation at patients with cancerous tumors. In this case, the hardware had a fail-safe to prevent damage to a patient or doctor; however, the software did not. Even worse, technicians using the machine would often enter the wrong dose of radiation; many deaths and injuries were caused as a result.

4. Denver airport’s automated baggage handling system was delayed for a year in the mid 1990s, postponing the opening of the airport at a cost of $234m. The airport’s proclaimed “fully automated baggage system” consisted of 26 miles of underground track, thousands of luggage carts, which were all controlled by a mainframe programmed for “just in time” delivery. Bugs delayed the airport’s opening, and the system never completely worked. In an effort to prevent any further revenue loss, the entire system was abandoned.

3. In 1999, the $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter received a computer failure; which, today is accepted as “lost” by NASA officials. It turns out that NASA had not specified the system of measurement on the device, resulting in one team of engineers working in imperial measurements, while another team was using metric. When one module, on the device, passed information to another, the system was unable to process it and simply shut down.

2. In May 1992, Pepsi ran a promotion in the Philippines; in which, they  offered a prize of one million pesos (which at the time was approx. US $40,000) for the lucky customer who found the number 349 stamped on the bottom of their bottle cap.  Due to a “software error”, 800,000 bottlecaps were printed with the winning number instead of just one. Pepsi offered to pay only $20 to anyone with a winning cap; however, the public rallied, and threw bombs into Pepsi’s bottling plants. Two people died in riots, and Pepsi officials had to be flown out of the country. Some “winners” pursued their claim through the courts, which resulted in Pepsi paying out millions of dollars in compensation.

1. A “software bug” was determined to be the problems behind the worst power system failure in North American history, the 2003 Northeast Blackout. After examining millions of lines of code, the problem was found in ONE utility company’s power monitoring and management software; the failure forced 100 power plants to shut down operation and resulted in the loss of electricity to over 50 million homes. Losses were estimated at $6 billion.

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11 Responses to “The 10 greatest catastrophes caused by PC carelessness”

  1. Barnegat Blummis:

    I had a secretary once who, it turned out, was a major whack job. Like many half-crazed people, she was adept at hiding it and all seemed to be going well for several months. Remember, this was years ago and computers had 20-50 gigabyte hard drives and still had floppy disks. I regularly did a backup of all my data onto floppies (they hadn’t come out with all the large storage mediums then) and it came to 54 floppy disks.

    One day, I came into the office and she informed me with an odd smile, “I made a mistake and erased your client databases! I’m so sorry.”

    I said that it wasn’t a problem since we had a full backup.

    “Oh, she replied with that same odd grin, “I also accidentally erased all of those, too.”

    That was the beginning of a long slide into near bankruptcy since I had no other copies of that database which represented years and years of work for clients all over the world.

    Of course I fired her on the spot, but the damage was done. That’s MY biggest disaster, for which I’m still paying.

  2. Diamond:

    haha at pepsi! I dont know how the manufacturing works at a place like that but you would think that at least one person would have caught on to the problem – at least some people got the $ they said should have won

  3. victor:

    lazy ass people letting computers do all the work.

  4. victor sux cox:

    Fuck you victor you ignorant piece of shit!

  5. Randomguy:

    the only thing that made this better for me was the fact at the end of the list when i finished reading it was an ad “reinstall XP”

  6. David:

    I fell the worst error was Bell’s System 7 phone switching station, which caused telephone lines to be cut throughout America, this then leads onto ‘Operation Sun Devil’.
    -The Hacker Crackdown, worth reading. I should probably re-read it :)

  7. ShadeDragon:

    Find it kinda silly how number 5 is a problem that caused numerous deaths and most likely heavy monetary damage, while most of the ones below it are just monetary damage. You’d think people lives would have a better value…

  8. Jeff:

    I’m surprised you left out the Patriot Missile Failure, where a rounding-error caused the death of 28 soldiers.

  9. internet marketing:

    I learnt about that radiotherapy machine while doing a course on safety critical systems at uni. Apparently they only hired one guy to program the software, and only he could understand the source code. However, the guy vanished.

  10. grenoble:

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    I’m a fan of your blog. Keep up the good work

  11. cultured:

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