Opinion and Return on Technology and Technology

ALTOM: You think you have problems? It could be worse

December 17, 2011

Another year has gone by, which means it’s time for my annual gift to you: examples of bumbling, hacking and physical disaster to make you feel much better about whatever technology snafu might have you disgruntled during Yuletide.

In years past, I’ve delighted in telling you about one or two big data breaches suffered by major companies that, unfortunately, did not pay as much attention to security as they did to their profit-and-loss statements.

This year offered up an embarrassment of riches. This is becoming less of an opportunity for fun, and more like a plague. For the first time, three of the top 10 data-breach losses of all time happened in one year. You can follow along at home yourself at datalossdb.org.

Sony leads the pack this year with around 100 million accounts compromised in two incidents, although that isn’t the biggest breach on record. Heartland Payment Systems, at 130 million in 2008, has that distinction. Sony’s breach, however, was a bigger public relations headache because it happened through its Playstation Network, which is heavily used by youngsters. The first Sony leak lost around 77 million accounts, and a subsequent entry took out another 24 million or so.

In Korea, SK Communications, which hosted two breached sites, social networking site Cyworld and search engine Nate, got hit for a collective 35 million records.

These are merely the big ones. Datalossdb.org has hordes of smaller breaches. So far this year, there have been 638 breaches of all kinds, not all of which were hacks. Many were just the result of negligence—stolen computers or hard drives, or lost thumb drives.

Not all disasters involve bits and bytes. I’m proposing two historically big ones for my Lousy Engineering Hall of Fame.

The first is the venerable Titanic, which hit an iceberg and sank in arctic waters in 1912. It snapped in two on its way to the bottom. For quite some time, researchers have wondered why the ship, which was supposedly designed to prevent sinking, sank—and in two pieces.

Lately, metallurgical analysis of the Titanic’s steel has shown it was surprisingly brittle, and likely not up to the rigors of even a much smaller iceberg collision. The steel used in shipbuilding back then was believed to be the best available, and it probably was. But analysis shows it’s so inferior to today’s more ductile steel that it would never be considered for ships nowadays. Part of the cause of the Titanic’s spectacular failure was simply that the shipbuilder’s art had outrun the era’s metallurgy. Put under the stresses of the collision, the ship broke apart as if it were made of Legos.

Far more recent, but even more spectacular, was the Army Corps of Engineers’ historic failure that resulted in the flooding of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. A report issued by the corps took the blame for hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and more than 1,500 lives lost, saying it built the levees around New Orleans “in a disjointed fashion” using “outdated methods.”

Engineers ignored the poor soil quality underneath New Orleans, as well as sinking that had brought some spots down some 2 feet below other places. This makes Katrina easily the biggest single disaster in human history traceable to poor design and engineering.

We expect reports of this sort of slipshod public works from Third World countries; it’s a shock to know we are prey to them, too. Even after $10 billion has been injected back into New Orleans’ levees, today’s rating system for dikes and levees gives New Orleans’ system only a two out of five.

Global warming is widely believed to give us more violent storms, so another Katrina isn’t as improbable as it might have been a decade or two back. New Orleans is still a sitting duck.

And what compendium of man-made technological disaster could overlook the sad story of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan? In March of this year, a combination of an earthquake and a tsunami wiped out the safeguards for reactors 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima, leading to their meltdowns. Hydrogen explosions did further damage. The government’s slow and highly criticized response intensified the problem. There were few deaths initially, but experts predict up to 1,000 more deaths will occur because of the cancer-causing radiation unleashed. Cleanup is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years.

There, don’t you feel better about your own problems?•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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