What we can learn from the NYSE, United and WSJ glitches even if they weren’t cyber-attacks

Yesterday the New York Stock Exchange, United Airlines and the Wall Street Journal all suffered computer glitches that shut down trading, grounded planes around the world and crashed the paper’s homepage. All three institutions deny that it had anything to do with cyber-attacks – these were just run-of-the-mill computer problems.

It’s not surprising that computer glitches occur on a fairly regular basis. If you think about it, given the billions of lines of code, the millions and millions of miles of wires and the tons of hardware that connect us all and perform our computing tasks it’s remarkable that our digital infrastructure works at all.

It does sound like a bit of a coincidence that these three giants all suffered problems on the same day at approximately the same time, but that’s pretty much the definition of coincidence.

But regardless of the causes of these events – benign happenstance, faulty programming, equipment failure or the act of nefarious entities – they still serve as a rather chilling glimpse into what true, all-out cyber warfare might be like.

As the dark hours passed on the NYSE floor yesterday I’m sure that fears began to grow. What if it had been a sophisticated cyber-attack and the NYSE had been seriously damaged? What if they hadn’t been able to bring it back online? What financial ripple effects would start to propagate around the world if the NYSE went dark for two days, a week, a month or even had become permanently disrupted? How long would it take before a serious financial catastrophe spread across the world? What if other stock exchanges around the world also suffered the same shut-downs?

And what would have happened if United couldn’t get their systems back online? Worse, what if the same problem suddenly popped up with half a dozen other airlines’ systems? If only a few international airlines had to ground all their planes it would have a disastrous impact on all air travel.

And what would have happened if the WSJ glitch spread to the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, ESPN, Fox etc.? If we suddenly lost all access to news outlets what would be the effect on the general public? Would there be panic or could we simply live without news?

All of these scenarios may seem a bit overly dramatic but perhaps we should start thinking about how to avoid these possibilities before they actually happen rather than waiting for them to occure and then try to fix things after the fact.