Home > All, Security Issues > Unintended consequence and the US military crashed $2.4 billion computer system

Unintended consequence and the US military crashed $2.4 billion computer system

Earlier this month a $2.4 billion air traffic control system built by Lockheed Martin went down for just less than one hour at Los Angeles, and forced multiple commercial flights to be diverted or grounded. Had the crash lasted longer, the ripple effects would have been much worse.

U-2 military spy plane

U-2 military spy plane

The ERAM system is designed to predict and forestall air collisions based on filed flight plans. It projects flight paths and times to warn air controllers of potential problems long before they occur. To do this it continually calculates and recalculates its data. One detail it didn’t include from the flight plan was the aircrafts’ altitude. Another small fail was an adequate failover plan.

Enter the US military. On the day in question a U-2 spy plane entered the controlled airspace. But it didn’t behave like a normal commercial flight: it kept changing direction and entering and leaving and re-entering the area. This threw the system into overdrive, continually attempting to calculate different flight paths at all possible altitudes — and eventually it collapsed under the strain.

In reality it wasn’t down for long. The technicians had it up and running again within an hour; but it could have been much worse and the consequences more severe. Now the reaction and analyses begin.

ThunderboltIt was a bug in the system. That states that the code was not adequately tested before use. Altitude and the effect of overload were not properly considered. But if it was not properly tested, the implication is that other bugs will exist.

This particular bug would be difficult to exploit externally by a malicious actor. It would require an unknown aircraft flying around in US airspace; and I suspect the USAF Thunderbolts might have something to say about that. But what of the unknown unknowns? That has to be a big concern now.

Categories: All, Security Issues
  1. May 13, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Being wrong about the way systems responded in the past doesn’t seem to deter people from being certain about the future.


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