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What’s the Deal With the Tech Glitches That Hit Airplanes, Stocks, and the Web?

tech glitches nyse united wsj

PANIC! (Sergey Shpakovsky / Flickr)

It felt a little like the end of the world. One tech crash after another brought major things in America to a grinding halt yesterday. Massive tech glitches hit three major systems:

  • United Airlines couldn't run its system, so flights were grounded.
  • The trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange had to stop work for hours.
  • And The Wall Street Journal website disappeared for some time.

It's unlikely they're all connected, but it was kinda freaky. Should we panic? Let's break it down.

Glitch 1: United Airways

It was just the beginning. Yesterday morning, United flights across the country stranded thousands of travelers because of a glitch.

What did the glitch do?

It was something like a connectivity issue. The airline said it was because of a faulty router.

The glitch crashed the system's automation, so the airline couldn't serve its customers.

Workers were not able to work off of their reservation system. But that system does much more than reserve flights--it shows maintenance issues, manages pilot and flight attendant schedules, and allows employees to do gate assignments. It also makes sure planes are moving along and they're sent to a gate.

On top of that, not every airline's reservation software is the same, so it's not like anyone in an airport can go in and fix it. So United was pretty much screwed.

How long did it last?

About two hours. (A very expensive 81 minutes: United may have lost $400,000 a minute.)

What were it effects?

A ton can happen in two hours. The glitch stopped all flights at each of its hubs in Chicago, Denver, and Houston - and affected all other United flights across the country.

5,000 flights couldn't take off. Nearly 500,000 travelers were stranded.

The airline decided to waive all fees for people trying to change their flights due to the disruption. And they apologized.

Glitch 2: The New York Stock Exchange

NYSE tech glitch

The New York Stock Exchange went dark. (llee_wu / Flickr)

Then this came next. The trading floor froze because... you guessed it - of a glitch.

What did the glitch do?

The NYSE trading was suspended due to some technical issues. The stock exchange on Wall Street in New York said it was a configuration issue.

They wanted to suspend trading so that they could properly address the glitch and get the exchange back up and running.

How long did it last?

Nearly four hours. (To be exact, 3 hours and 38 minutes--the longest outage the NYSE has experienced.)

What were its effects?

People couldn't bid or send offers through the time of the outage. It meant that traders couldn't trade in person. They had to do it all electronically and at other exchanges. There are 11 other exchanges in the country and abroad--like the NASDAQ--so traders continued work off those exchanges.

The NYSE used to account for 80% of the country's stock trading, but now only covers about 20%. So this was mostly just an annoyance.

Glitch 3: The Wall Street Journal

And the next system went down. This time, it was a newspaper that specializes in covering Wall Street.

What did the glitch do?

The Wall Street Journal website disappeared. It just stopped working. The WSJ reported it as "technical difficulties."

Website visitors were redirected to an error page or to a simplified version of the homepage.

How long did it last?

It was down for about 20 to 30 minutes.

What were it effects?

Well, the paper's website was largely inaccessible. And people panicked, thinking it was connected to the NYSE shutdown.

What caused all these tech problems? Are they related?

Glitches, glitches, glitches.

It was just a freaky day, and the three glitches probably weren't related.

C'mon. Really?

OK, well, some people insist it could have been a coordinated hack or cyberattack. And conspiracy theorists had a field day. So did Stephen Colbert.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there is "no sign of malicious activity" in the United and NYSE outages. The DHS chief Jeh Johnson said,

"I have spoken to the CEO of United myself, and it appears that the malfunctions from United and New York Stock Exchange were not the result of any nefarious actor."

There's really no evidence that there was any kind of attack.

Perhaps, very eerily, online hacktivist group Anonymous tweeted this 12 hours before the NYSE shut down:

The exchange insists it was an internal issue and there was no "cyber breach."

And other people thought it was a huge conspiracy leading to the end of the world.

Can outages like these be prevented?

Well, this is certainly not the first time tech issues have grounded flights. And the NYSE suspension was the fourth trading freeze in the last 15 years, because of tech glitches. And websites like the WSJ's go down all the time because of tech problems. Tech fails, people.

But outages like these do make people worry about cybersecurity and cyberattacks. Are we working on it? President Obama proposed a cybersecurity bill at the beginning of this year, which could really help protect us. And leaders in the Senate are looking to address the issue by maybe issuing a computer network protection bill.

Really though, the outages show just how much we depend on technology.

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What’s the Deal With the Tech Glitches That Hit Airplanes, Stocks, and the Web?

Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a freelance international news reporter, having contributed to The Atlantic online and Mic. He's worked at CNNMoney, the New York Daily News, and Voice of America. Patrick loves tweeting, reading, and grabbing coffee in either New York or Washington D.C. Tweet anything on politics or world conflict to him! Follow: @patrickdehahn.

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