Classic Computer Cock Ups
The following page is © ZZAP! 64 Ltd / Newsfield 1988-1989

In the twenty years that he's been invoved with computers, THIS was the series Mel Croucher had been waiting to write! A collection of classic computer cock-ups...

DATELINE: Kingston on Themes, England, November 1988
The local library is rightly proud of its computerised bar code system, and believes that the cost of over 10,000 is fully justified. Mr Peter Dalton, head of Beverley School Sixth Form examines the system, duplicates it and makes a few improvements for his own use, including a real-time clock, a computer-generated bar code writer and assorted friendly on-screen greetings. The cost of the complete improved system? 55.

DATELINE: Pacific Ocean, 1977
The US Air Force patrols the skies, vowing never again to repeat the computerised mistakes experienced in Vietnam. Their F-16 bombers are a masterpiece of modern war technology, having fully-automated on-board global map reading facilities, so that their sexy nukes won't get lost. They don't get lost, but the North American-based programmers have overlooked one wee terrestrial fact. Every time the bombers cross the Equator, they flip upside down.

DATELINE: London, England, January 1987
William Farquhar, Senior Consultant with BIS Applied Systems Ltd has the weird behaviour of the head computer programmer of an international drugs outfit reported to him. The guy starts out by moving money around the system without authorisation just to bring attention to himself. When this doesn't work he pops up on the management's VDU screens, displaying the greeting 'Hello Sailor!' Finally, he takes control of the entire system and makes himself indispensable. Farquhar advises them to sack the loony on the spot, and escort him away from the nearest terminal, but instead of this they reckon that he's safer working with them and not against them. The culprit is promoted! Things work out just fine, except for one little thing. Everyone else with access to the computer system starts sending blackmail promotion demands.

DATELINE: Inter-State Power Grid, USA, 1979
Five nuclear power reactors are shut down when a backdrop computer discovers that they will collapse in the event of a minor earthquake. The original earthquake prediction sub-routine has been told to take arithmetic sums instead of the sum of the absolute values, which roughly translated means that if an earth-quake had occurred, large chunks of the USA would have disappeared in a nuclear meltdown. Some sub-routine!

Aarrgghh! My face! My face!

DATELINE: Unknown, USA, September 1986
The Computer Law And Security Report for this month reports the demise of an American bank due to an accidental computer exploit by the world's youngest ever hacker. The bank's Vice President links his home terminal to the mainframe to do some work over the weekend. He takes his wife out for a spot of dinner on Saturday night, leaving his machine on line. His three-year-old daughter convinces the babysitter that Pop doesn't mind her playing 'games' on the computer, and randomly bashes the keyboard. The following Monday morning the bank staff report that they've gone bust. By pure chance their entire assets have been transferred to unknown destinations by the infant's podgy little fingers, and all records of the deals are flushed down the electronic toilet of oblivion.

DATELINE: Thule, Greenland, October 1960
The Third World War begins when the NORAD early warning system indicates that the United States in under massive attack by Soviet missiles, with a certainty of 99.9%, and NATO hits the Red Button to retaliate. War is averted only after a computer operator realises that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar has informed its computers that the missiles are homing in on a very familiar flight path. In fact, a flight path that is older than mankind itself. Yes folks, nobody bothered to inform the machines that the Moon rises, so the computer reckons it's an enemy missile and orders us to nuke it!

DATELINE: Malvern, England, April 1987
Highly sensitive secrets from the Ministry of Defence Royal Signals and Research Establishment are discovered by a computer student on a second-hand machine he buys at an army surplus store. On the computer's hard disk over 1500 of applications software is lurking, and the data includes a complete breakdown of past and future budgets, design and manufacture programs for equipment, classified files with special 'self destruct' security codes, full staff details, research details and the security systems used by the Ministry of Defence to protect secret files. The MoD are still suffering from brown trousers because a second similar computer has yet to be tracked down. The price that the student paid for this saucerful of secrets? Forty-five quid!

Who the hell is that?

DATELINE: Welwyn Garden City, England, January 1986
The Asda Hypermarket is proud of its total conversion to computerised barcode check-outs. At 6.30 on Friday night, half of the automatic tills go right down I and queues begin to build right up. By 8.OOpm all the automatic check-outs have broken down, but nobody on the staff can remember how to operate a manual system - besides, most of the goods don't have prices stamped on them any more, and the staff can't remember what anything costs. Management politely asks its customers to leave the store and go home, but the angry crowd refuses - after all, they've been queueing for hours and they ain't got any food for the weekend. After a modest riot, the police are called to evict hungry, angry customers. The cause of the breakdown is a mystery, but may have something to do with a failsafe foolproof unit' built into the system.

DATELINE: London, England, December 1984
The London Borough of Brent experiences some unwanted Christmas cheer when its Acton office's salary program for November is run through an IBM 30/83 along with the December program and everyone gets paid twice. Four thousand council workers are delighted to receive this unexpected seasonal bonus. The cock-up is only discovered after all the money has been cleared through the banks, when the authorities politely ask for their money back. As it is illegal to debit a customer's account without their permission, 25% of council employees tell their local authority to get stuffed. Net loss: 500,000.

DATELINE: Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988
Liberty Life Insurance installs computer controlled steel security doors to protect it's staff. Twenty-three year old Renata Espach is handing a document to an employee when the doors decide to go into emergency mode and crush her to death. The document is for life insurance policy.