When IT Disaster Strikes: The 10 Biggest IT Mishaps in History

When IT Disaster Strikes: The 10 Biggest IT Mishaps in History

November 18

People make the world go round, but information technology helps it revolve much smoother. However, if we’ve learned one thing about IT over the years, it’s that no technology is perfect. Whether it’s an app crashing or a server going belly up for good, our favorite pieces of tech having a habit of acting up at the most inopportune moments. When an IT disaster strikes, software and hardware hiccups are usually not far behind, as is the case in these 10 historic disasters.

10. Anonymous Hijacks the Government

Earlier this year, hacker activist group Anonymous group proved that any entity can be compromised when it infiltrated the U.S. Government’s Sentencing Commission website. The group defaced the website with a message referencing the death of online activist Aaron Schwartz, who supposedly committed suicide after being harassed by federal prosecutors. In February, Anonymous hit the government websites,, and, which was reportedly done in protest of the controversial Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

9. Mathematical Bug Hinders Pentium Launch

In 1994, a bug was spotted in the floating point unit on the first incarnation of the Intel Pentium processor. Intel initially believed that the flaw would only affect a small number of users in rare circumstances, but after testing, it was revealed that it could have major implications when used in math, science, and other areas that rely heavily on calculations. Intel incurred the biggest impact as the company shelled out $475 million to replace the faulty chips.

8. UK Passport System Upgrade Botched

Travel plans for numerous British citizens were ruined when the Passport Agency botched the implementation of a new Siemens computer system. The agency failed to thoroughly test the system and train employee how to use it, resulting in chaos that caused hundreds of people to miss out on holiday trips. It was the Home Office that had to foot the bill for this IT disaster when it shelled out millions in compensation and employee overtime to get the issue resolved.

7. UK Fumbles Healthcare Revolution

The U.K. decided to embrace IT in 2005 by making a transition to electronic health records. Unfortunately, technology incompatibilities, contractor woes, and poor planning resulted in what has been called an epic failure. The initiative continues to chug along, but IT specialists within the UK government warned that the project could end up costing an estimated $26 million over the budget.

6. IT Mishap Stalls Power Redistribution Following Blackout

In 2003, the God of electricity cut the power on most of the northeastern United States and portions of Canada. Really, electricity company First Energy was the culprit. Due to a bug in its alarm software, the system failed to alert First Energy that it needed to redistribute electricity after trees in Ohio fell on power lines and upset the electric grid. Failure of the company’s IT management team to follow up with customers affected by the incident has also been blamed in the blackout that impacted nearly 50 million people.

5. AT&T Phone Network Shuts Itself Down

Software problems also caused the AT&T network to collapse in 1990. What was once believed to be the work of hackers turned out to be a coding error made during a tedious system upgrade. Unfortunately, that one error set off a chain reaction that resulted in multiple switches throughout the nation shutting themselves down. 75 million phone calls were affected for a span of about nine hours.

4. FBI Pulls the Plug on VCF

In 2005, the FBI shelved Virtual Case File, a software system that would allow the agency to browse across multiple criminal databases in search of suspects. It was a nifty ideal, but the project was so flawed that its lack of crucial features and poor management would have put sensitive law enforcement and national security data at great risk had it gone live. The Feds scrapped the project in favor in Sentinel, which has been successful so far, but not without blowing $170 million.

3. Nielsen Fumbles Rating System Upgrade

In 1995, TV ratings provider Nielsen made a bold move to perform a major overhaul of its core computer system. It was a complex project that the company’s IT team estimated would take three years to complete. Lacking the virtue of patience, Nielsen execs wanted it done faster and hired software development firm Tenfold, who promised to complete it in one year. Well the vendor botched the coding, resulting in millions of wasted dollars, a lawsuit against Tenfold, and a gigantic mess insiders say took Nielsen over a decade to sort out.

2. Ariane 5 Blows Up

The European Space Agency designed the Ariane 5 to be a reliable, high-capacity replacement for the Ariane 4 launcher. Unfortunately, those plans literally went up in smoke when it exploded in 1996. The explosion, which occurred 40 seconds after lift off, was reportedly caused by a software flaw that triggered the control system to self destruct after it tried to cram a 64-bit number in a space where only 16-bits fit.

1. Buggy Software Nearly Initiates War

Back in 1983, faulty software almost sparked what could have very well been the third World War. Thanks to a bug in its early warning system, the Soviet Union believed that the U.S. had fired off five ballistic missiles at the nation. Apparently the flaw was caused when satellites picked up sunlight reflecting off the top of clouds, which the system was supposed to filter out as a false detection. Luckily, a Soviet officer realized something was off, reasoning that the U.S. would probably launch more than five missiles if they were really attacking.

As you can see, it not only pays to have a backup plan, but implement strategies that are designed to avert an IT disaster as well. In some of the aforementioned instances, proper planning and execution could have prevented mishaps that ended up costing the unfortunate victims millions of dollars.

Photo Credit: Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix) via Compfight cc