Virgin blip gives a glimpse of total digital chaos
It’s a very first-world picture of human misery: a packed airport terminal filled with thousands of delayed travellers.
There are frazzled parents at the limits of their patience, looking after bored kids giddy at being on their school holidays but frustrated at having nothing to do. Passengers milling around, trying to nap on a hard floor, anxious that the next announcement on the public address system will be the one that cancels their flight.
And all because of a computer problem.
It’s the second edge of the sword of connected technology: systems that make aspects of life easier, cheaper, faster and more convenient – until they run into a problem.
If a system crash that affects one airline can result in this kind of chaos, consider the chaos if something bigger failed, like Centrelink, or a bank.
A simple crash or a cyber attack on any number of systems could quickly bring the economy to its knees – which is why they are such appealing targets for terrorists.
The US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said last year that his department was now dealing with cyberattacks every day and he planned to quadruple the number of staff protecting the critical systems from being compromised.
Two years ago, a whole network of US defence computers was infected by a virus that allowed hackers to steal information, simply by a little flash drive – the little things that go on your key ring – being plugged into a computer somewhere in the Middle East.
It wasn’t anything as malicious or premeditated as this that brought about the chaos in airports around Australia yesterday.
Virgin Blue said its external supplier of the reservations system, Navitaire, “had a computer hardware failure that forced the switch to the slower manual check-in system.”
Further details are yet to emerge but “computer hardware failure” sounds to me like corporate speak for a box breaking down or a cable being severed or pulled out of a wall.
One of the key arguments advanced by the government in favour of the National Broadband Network is that connected technologies will create a new virtual economy, unleash new opportunities for business and improve government services, particularly in healthcare.
Which is all very agreeable, but increasing dependence on these technologies creates new risks.
NBN or no, governments and private companies will spend big to try and avoid their systems being compromised but as their rate of use increases so to does the likelihood that there will be a “computer hardware failure”.
While problems with traditional infrastructure that helps us get on with things: water and electricity supplies, transport networks - tend to be confined to a physical area, they can still cause complete chaos. Think of a power cut or a major traffic jam; it’s a massive inconvenience but the impact is largely contained.
But as the Virgin Blue incident showed the effects of a system problem can instantly be felt right around the country.
It’s not a matter of if a more wide-ranging failure occurs, but when. Not to be a doom-sayer, but the potential chaos from a major system collapse makes the Virgin incident look like a holiday.
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