Multiple tech failures raise questions of computer dependency

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- Though Wednesday's multiple large-scale cyber failures conjured up thoughts of coordinated hacker attacks, it seems that complex systems being asked to do too much may have been the real the root cause.

KTVU looked at the increasingly overtasked computer systems virtually all of us depend on. It may be that computer systems turn out to be no more reliable than a camel loaded with the last straw that broke its back.

Every major endeavor, from the business battlefield to the real thing depends on computer networks. But with all computer networks, there are balances struck every day between their usefulness to us and the cost of keeping them going, whether from software glitches, hardware failures or hackers.

For example, United Airlines is still wrestling with the marriage of their computer systems following its merger with Continental five years ago.

"They were two large airlines that had very different systems and have had to merge their computer systems and operations, a very complicated task. These mergers have been known to go through a lot of bumps," said Associated Press transportation expert Joan Lowy. 

KTVU also spoke with Herbert Lin, Senior Research Scholar for Cyber Policy and Security at Stanford University.

"Consolidation of the computer systems into one giant computer system can lead to the kind of problems you're describing as well," says Mr. Lin.

As it turns out, the New York Stock Exchange, which has many other exchanges, keeps those systems separate.

"So far, the problem appears to be just isolated to the NYSE, so trading on NASDAQ and on electronic exchanges like Chicago Options are trading as normal." said Associated Press financial expert Bernard Condon.

But, increasingly, the trend is to make computer systems do more and more things.

"Are we at the point where our systems are sufficiently vulnerable? Where we're asking too much of our systems?" asked Stanford's Lin.

In fact, in many cases, companies, organizations and agencies share computer systems.

"The fact that A and B are competitors doesn't necessarily mean that if A's system goes down, B's stays up," said Lin.

The triple whammy of the NYSE, United Airlines and the Wall Street Journal system failures drew the attention of the President.

"Obviously the administration is keenly aware of the risks that exist in cyberspace right now. There are a number of steps that this administration has taken to improve communication between the private sector and the federal government when it comes to safeguarding cyberspace," said the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Despite calls for cooperation and communication, much of the U.S. economy is "every man for himself."

"In a deregulated environment you have the intent only to provide for your own immediate business needs. And, if that leaves the rest of the country more vulnerable than you would like, well, 'tough,'" said Lin.

In that environment, you build a system that protects you, not your competitors. But more and more often, those systems also fail, failing not just those companies' and organizations', but their customers and clients as well.

That happened three years ago.

"In 2012 there was the flash crash when a technical glitch caused the Dow to plunge 600 points in five minutes," said Condon.

It also takes our minds off the real issues that threaten, for example, those who depend on financial organizations for their retirements and pensions.

"My gut is that there are bigger issues to worry about than a trading glitch. We have a Chinese stock market which is plunging and we don't know if Greece will have to exit the euro," said Condon.

Tomorrow, those issues move to the investor forefront while United figures out to do with all those passengers still waiting for a ride.