RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: The worst of this year’s technology snafus

Another year gone, and yet another Christmas gift for you. Every year, I collect examples of utterly horrendous technological snafus and write about them. No matter how awful your own meltdowns may have been, they can’t have been as bad as these, so enter the new year with a light heart.

The first example of disaster is fresh in the news still, at least in reports from the British Broadcasting Corp. The English government has lost disks with personal information about people who pay child support-some 25 million of them. That’s nearly four times the entire population of Indiana. All of England holds only about 50 million.

The disks were sent through “internal mail” and just dropped out of sight. The data was password-protected, but not encrypted. Government officials are assuring everyone that the disks are somewhere in a government office; they just don’t know which office. It transpired that the data wasn’t “sanitized” before being sent because of a cost-cutting effort. Getting rid of the personal data would have cost too much.

Smaller in scope but much closer to home, in June the state of Ohio had a backup tape stolen that contained names and Social Security numbers of around a quarter-million state residents. A 22-year-old intern had the tape when it was nicked, but it turned out his possession of it was intentional, and that taking backup tapes home was a standard practice. I’ve worked in and around a lot of data shops, and I’ve never seen one whose official backup policy was to run a tape and hand it to an intern.

Speaking of close to home, local hospital St. Vincent Health had its own inadvertent data release in July, as reported by The Indianapolis Star. About 51,000 patients’ personal information was released into the wilds of the Internet by a subcontractor who exposed it to external searches.

OK, so the state of Ohio might be a little behind the times. But what excuse does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have? In June, the Associated Press reported that the DHS admitted to having more than 800 break-ins, virus episodes and other security problems over two years. Both the Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration computers had infections. Laptops were found to be missing. The agency said its secured networks were never in any danger, but had to fess up to “classified spillage,” meaning secret information was sent over unsecured e-mail.

Apparently, the glorious sights of Alaska aren’t the only perks to living there. Alaskan residents get a regular check from the state government, courtesy of the black gold pumped out of the state’s oilfields. It is, as you might think, a politically sensitive, yet popular program. Imagine the consternation when, according to a CNN story earlier this year, a computer technician accidentally wiped out application information for that account from a hard drive he was working on, and followed it up with the accidental reformatting of the backup drive, too.

But not to worry, there are always the backup tapes. Except they were unreadable. An account worth some $38 billion now had no applicants. The state had to spend nearly a quarter-million dollars to painstakingly reconstruct all the records from 300 boxes of original paperwork.

History is replete with numerous examples of meltdowns. CIO magazine reports that, in 1987, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust was seeking a computer solution to its billing problems and contracted with Peat Marwick Main & Co. (known today as KPMG Peat Marwick LLP) to produce it. By 1991, the trust and Peat Marwick had contentiously parted company and the project was in ruins. The trust still had no billing system. By 1993, the two parties had settled for $1.8 million.

In 1991, still looking for a solution, the trust was shown what was touted to be a fully-developed utilitybilling system by a company called NCC. In reality, it was anything but fully developed. In early 1992, the trust signed a $1.3 million contract with NCC. NCC struggled to produce code until September 1993, when its financial backer closed his wallet and the company shut down. In desperation, the trust hired the NCC programmers to finish the project, at an additional cost of $2.8 million. It went live in May 1995. Even after eight years and several million dollars, it still didn’t work right.

Kind of makes you want to buy really nice gifts for your best technology-support people, doesn’t it? On their behalf, I’d like to encourage that thought. Our reliance on technology puts us far above the ground on a swaying tightrope, and only vigilance can keep us from tumbling off, or the rope from breaking altogether. During this holiday season, give thanks for the people who erect and maintain the equipment and the safety nets.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at He can be reached at

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