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

Reuters / Chip East
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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.”