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E-pocalypse now: Airline, stock exchange hit by computer glitches

E-pocalypse now: Airline, stock exchange hit by computer glitches
United Airlines was writing boarding passes by hand before stopping all flights for three hours. Then the New York Stock Exchange halted all trades, citing a mysterious “technical glitch.” It wasn’t a cyberattack, US officials said – but what was it?

The airline blamed its woes on a problem with a router. After first trying a low-tech fix, writing the boarding passes by hand, United grounded its entire fleet around 8 a.m. Eastern Time. By the time the computers were back up and the order was lifted, almost two hours later, some 800 flights had been delayed, and a total of 59 flights by United and its regional partners were canceled.

“An issue with a [computer] router degraded network connectivity for various applications, causing this morning's operational disruption," United said in a statement. "We fixed the router issue, which is enabling us to restore normal functions."

By 11:30, however, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) had called a halt to all trades and said all open orders would be canceled. Though trade continued on other exchanges, rampant speculation about the nature and cause of the problem spread through the social media like wildfire.

First @united grounds their planes, then @NYSE halts trading...is this real life or a viral marketing campaign for #MrRobot

— Albert Antiquera (@albertantiquera) July 8, 2015

An hour into the shutdown, NYSE issued a statement saying the problem was an “internal technical issue and is not the result of a cyber breach.” FBI and Homeland Security issued statements to that effect as well.

Then the Wall Street Journal’s website went down.

Looks like I picked the wrong day to take a United flight to the NYSE for a story on http://t.co/V0bk9s9ZgC

— Mark Gongloff (@markgongloff) July 8, 2015

Though the Journal was able to re-establish the page by noon, the cause of the problem remained a mystery.

Meanwhile, the NYSE reopened around 3:15 p.m., only to close at its normal time 45 minutes later. According to one trader, who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, the problem was due to a software update that was rolled out before the markets opened Wednesday morning.

That did not stop the internet from recalling a subplot of the 2012 Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” when a terrorist named Bane held the “Gotham” stock exchange hostage.

Blame it on Bane: The Internet reacts to the NYSE’s halt http://t.co/BwEuiYWmlB

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) July 8, 2015

One cybersecurity company said its systems were showing an increase in attacks on a St. Louis hub, reportedly home to NYSE servers.

http://t.co/qIKrMG6TZL norse corp showing alot of attacks in st.louis which happens to be the location of the cybercon NYSE data center

— FxMacro (@fxmacro) July 8, 2015

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) tweeted that the outages at United, NYSE and WSJ gave “appearance of an attack,” and claimed this was a reminder for Congress to pass a cybersecurity bill he sponsored.

Three major computer malfunctions on same day give appearance of an attack, serve as reminder Congress must pass a cybersecurity bill

— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) July 8, 2015

Many pointed to a Tuesday evening tweet, reportedly from the hacktivist group Anonymous, hoping that Wednesday would be a “bad day for Wall Street”:

Wonder if tomorrow is going to be bad for Wall Street.... we can only hope.

— Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) July 8, 2015

The original explanation about unconnected, spontaneous problems seemed to prevail in the end, as normal operations were restored. While preferable to a cyberattack, the idea that air travel and stock trading could be crippled by faulty routers and bad software updates was still worrisome.

I don't get the sentiment that it's somehow better if it's not hackers but "glitches" shutting down the NYSE, a major airline and the WSJ

— Megan Murphy (@meganmurp) July 8, 2015

Federal law enforcement officials are already citing fears of terrorism in a bid to subvert commercial encryption. Hackers have already compromised the White House, State Department and Office of Personnel Management computer systems.

This past weekend, the Italian-based spyware purveyor Hacking Team, which reportedly worked with several US government agencies, was itself hacked, and the company’s secrets leaked via Twitter.

With every aspect of life and business becoming increasingly dependent on computer networks, and those networks in turn being targeted by both governments and hackers, it seems like hardware and software glitches are the least of everyone’s problems – even if they can literally cause the world to “go dark.”

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