The four-hour outage at the New York Stock Exchange July 8 coupled with problems earlier in the day at United Airlines and the Wall Street Journal brought renewed focus to businesses’ and consumers’ growing dependence on technology and the problems that arise when that technology goes awry.
Investors already nervous over concerns about the Chinese economy and the growing debt problem in Greece saw trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) halted late in the morning and not resume until later in the afternoon, not too long before the end of trading at the closing bell. It was the longest outage to hit U.S. trading markets since 2013, when the Nasdaq market went down for almost three hours.
Officials with the 223-year-old NYSE said a computer glitch was to blame for the shutdown. They said in a statement late in the day that the computer problem involved a configuration issue, though they didn't elaborate. Earlier in the day, an unnamed trader told the New York Times that exchange officials informed them that the problems were related to a software update.
According to a Reuters report, the NYSE was having connectivity problems even before the opening bell, which led to some customers not getting acknowledgements on orders that had been submitted.
The exchange's issues came after United Airlines officials said a faulty router caused the carrier to ground all of its flights for more than an hour, leading to 61 flights being cancelled and another 1,100 being delayed. The airline released a statement to journalists saying that "an issue with a router degraded network connectivity for various applications, causing this morning's operational disruption."
United officials said they had "fixed the router issue, which is enabling us to restore normal functions."
Also in the morning, the Wall Street Journal found its home page was down for a while.
Throughout the day, officials with the NYSE, United and the WSJ said there was no indication that the problems were caused by cyber-attacks, a comment backed up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and White House. President Obama reportedly was being kept apprised of the situation throughout the day.
However, officials with security vendors said the technical problems again put the focus on two issues: the growing dependence modern society has on technology, the far-reaching ripple effects problems can have worldwide, and the continued fear that cyber criminals are behind most of the problems.
Technology continues to be used to do jobs that humans once did. In the world of high finance, computers have made trading stocks faster and more efficient. That has raised questions about whether safeguards can be put in place in an environment where trades can be made so quickly, and how to make these systems more resilient when a glitch happens.
"There is virtually no part of our global economy that isn't dependent on interconnected technology today, and the level of interdependence continues to increase steadily," Tim Erlin, director of IT security and risk strategy at Tripwire, said in a statement sent to journalists. "That means that any failure, malicious or not, has the potential to create economic repercussions."
Erlin said what organizations and tech vendors should be focusing on is not just eliminating errors, but "providing resiliency in the face of known instability."
"There are many layers of technology between the consumer and the services we depend on, from the individual smartphone that you use to access a service, to the vendor who provides the networking equipment used by the telecommunications company to provide connectivity to the company providing the service," he said. "The level of complexity can be staggering, and this means an error made by a developer half-way around the world somewhere in the supply chain of a service can impact the operations of major businesses like United."
There also is the tendency to assume that any computer problem at a business is the result of a cyber-attack, according to Jonathan Sander, strategy and research officer at Stealthbits Technologies.
"United Airlines and NYSE both made strong statements via Twitter that their outages were not security-related," Sander said in a statement sent to journalists. "There's no reason to doubt them. But what does it say that this is the first thing everyone assumes? If you went to a clothing store on Main Street and there was a 'we'll be back later' sign in the window, would you assume a thief had broken in? It's very clear that the good guys are not winning the PR battle in the digital security world. We all assume the bad guys can take down any sized company at any time."