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911 Outages Hit Washington State, Parts of Oregon

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week, with the exception of the massively annoying Heartbleed programming oofta, was a relatively quiet one with the typical garden variety of IT-related snafus, errors and problems being reported. We start this edition of IT Hiccups with 911 emergency call system outages that hit several states last week.

Early last Thursday morning beginning around 0100 am local time, three counties in Oregon as well as the entirety of Washington State discovered that their emergency 911 call dispatch systems were no longer working. Oregon’s outage was cleared up in about three hours, but it took nearly seven hours before 911 services were restored across Washington State.

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Heartbleed Bug Patch Underway, But Was It Really the Problem?

More clarity about the vulnerability of banking and credit card data and other sensitive information such as website logins and passwords came this week, when a Google researcher and a team from the Finnish security firm Codenomicon separately reported the existence of an Internet security flaw that is being called the Heartbleed Bug. What makes Heartbleed so insidious is the fact that it can allow hackers to snatch data from a server’s memory 64 kilobytes at a time—even if the information is supposedly encrypted—without leaving a trace. While the end user takes comfort in the ability of SSL/TLS encryption to keep his or her data from prying eyes, the “https” in the URL and the closed padlock icon are a cruel trick.

Since the news broke, websites have responded, updating their versions of OpenSSL, one of the most commonly used variants of SSL/TLS. These protocols were designed to implement asymmetric cryptography, wherein a unique private key is generated for each communication session in order to encrypt and authenticate the messages exchanged between the parties. But the flaw made data such as these keys and the information they were intended to keep secret far too easy to access. What’s more, the operators of the websites were completely unaware that this was possible. 

How big a problem is this? Security expert Bruce Schneier, on his eponymous blog, says that, “…anything in memory—SSL private keys, user keys, anything—is vulnerable. And you have to assume that it is all compromised. All of it.” Not to put too fine a point on it, he added, “‘Catastrophic’ is the right word. On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.

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Spiders Prompt Mazda to Recall Cars for Software Update

Back in 2011, Mazda had to recall some 65 000 Mazda6 cars in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico because yellow sac spiders—aka Cheiracanthium inclusum—were nesting in “tiny rubber hoses linked to fuel tank systems…[which] could cause pressurization and ventilation problems,” the LA Times reported at the time. In the worst case, Mazda indicated, the spider nests could clog the tubes, or more accurately, the evaporative canister vent lines. The resulting clogs could stress a car’s fuel tank to a point where it cracks, possibly leaks fuel, and potentially ignites.

Mazda installed a spring to the canister vent lines in an attempt to keep the pesky spiders out. In addition, it modified the vehicle’s “Power Control Module software to minimize negative pressure of the fuel tank” for Mazda6s that were still on the production line.  However, in a report (pdf) to the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration made public last week, Mazda indicated that some spiders had still managed to get through the springs and cause fuel line problems in a number of its customers’ refitted Mazda6s. The automaker did have some good news to report: Its PCM software modification was “effective” in avoiding the possibility of fuel tank cracking, even if a spider’s sac completely clogged the canister vent line.

So Mazda is now going to recall 42 000 U.S.-built Mazda6 cars with 2.5-liter engines from model years 2010 to 2012. These vehicles, built between September 2009 and May 2011, have had the spring installed, but not the PCM software update. Mazda says it will check for spider nests in the canister vent lines, and make needed repairs to any fuel-related parts that may have been damaged as a result of the spiders. It will also reprogram the PCM software to minimize negative pressure in the fuel tank. Affected Mazda6 owners should be getting their recall notices any time now.

Meanwhile, in a more run of the mill recall, Mazda also has issued a global recall last week for 88 000 Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-5 vehicles manufactured between October 2012 and January 2014 to reprogram its engine control computer. Mazda reported that a “glitch” was found “in the computer program that checks whether the capacitor, a part of the brake energy regeneration system, is functioning properly,” the Economic Times reported.  As a result, the vehicles may not accelerate correctly or even stall. No accidents related to the software problem have been reported, Mazda stated.

The hot water General Motors finds itself in for failing to recall cars with faulty ignition switches and the $1.2 billion hit Toyota just took for hiding what it knew about the problems some of its cars were having with unintended acceleration, may be providing the impetus to make proactive and forthcoming the auto industry’s new bywords. It used to be that car companies were afraid to issue recalls unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where they’re afraid not to.

Nest Labs Suspends Sale of Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector until Software Fixed

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week saw several interesting IT-related bugs, ooftas and malfunctions being reported. We start this week’s edition of IT Hiccups with a potentially serious software issue in the Nest Labs’ Wi-Fi connected smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

Nest Labs announced on its website last Thursday that it was going to suspend sales of its Nest Protect: Smoke + Carbon Monoxide alarm to fix a “unique combination of circumstances that caused us to question whether the Nest Wave (a feature that enables you to turn off your alarm with a wave of the hand) could be unintentionally activated. This could delay an alarm going off if there was a real fire.” In addition to suspending sales of the product, the company is remotely deactivating (where possible) the Next Wave feature until a software fix is found. The company notes that even with the Wave feature disabled, the detector will work.

According to the New York Times, Nest Labs discovered that during laboratory testing the alarm’s software algorithm could misinterpret movement near the detector as being an intentional “wave” command and shut the unit off. The feature, the ability to easily turn off the smoke detector with a wave of the hand from a distance of 0.6 to 2.4 meters away when there was a false alarm, is a major selling point of Nest Protect. But in its current instantiation, the feature may be a life-threatening bug.

Nest Labs stated that it may take two to three months before a software fix is designed, tested and approved by safety agencies in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Once complete, the company will send out a software update to reactivate the Wave feature. Nest Labs also emphasized that no one has reported that a detector failed to sound an alarm in event of a fire.

Nest Labs, which is better known for its elegantly-designed Learning Thermostat, was purchased earlier this year by Google for $3.2 billion in cash. There have also been reports of a small number of Nest thermostat customers having wiring-related problems.

The issue with Nest Protect nicely highlights, as IEEE Spectrum’s Automaton editor Erico Guizzo noted to me, the paradox of how software can make things more complicated and worse (i.e., a flawed hand-waving feature), as well as how software can make things more complicated and better (i.e., a remote software update to fix the bug).

The Financial Times of London reemphasized Guizzo’s point in its article on the Nest Protect software bug. It noted that customers and companies can expect these types of incidents to occur more often as “smart” technology is added to simple devices in the emerging rush to embrace the “Internet of Things.” The article also noted that companies’ customer service better be ready to respond when a problem is found. The FT noted, for instance, that just in January, Nest Lab was “forced to increase its customer-support hours after several customers complained about persistent false alarms” that were unrelated to the current software issue.

Eircom Says We’re “Embarrassed” Over the Error, But We Still Want Our Money Now

There are a lot of customers who are angry with Eircom, the largest telecom provider in the Republic of Ireland. Apparently, some 30 000 of its customers will be receiving bills of as much as €500 in their next billing cycle. Eircom is attempting to recoup funds it previously failed to collect because of what it is calling a “system error,” the company told Dublin’s Herald newspaper. That error relates to its implementation of the new Single European Payments Area (SEPA)—a project that is meant to harmonize how retail payments are made and processed across the 34 European countries. The affected customers, which the Dublin Herald describes as “a mix of phone and internet users, mainly those with bundle packages, who make monthly direct debit payments...did not have some or all of their monthly direct debit payments taken from their bank accounts for phone, broadband and TV service since January.” This was despite the fact that customers’ bills showed that the bills had indeed been paid.

Eircom’s director of corporate affairs said that the incident was not only “regrettable,” but that “it’s embarrassing and we're very sorry that it's happened.”

However, Eircom wasn’t too embarrassed or sorry to insist that although it plans to reimburse the failed direct debit fee charge of €18.45, those 30 000 customers would still have to pay all the monies owed the telecom immediately.

Eircon’s hard stand has not endeared it with Ireland’s telecom regulator, which publicly stated that it is demanding a report into the billing error and how it happened. The regulator also wants to know why Eircom failed to inform it that a billing problem had occurred.

In Other News…

New Illinois Teacher Licensing System a Buggy Mess

Western Digital Finally Fixes Multi-day Cloud Outage

One of Melbourne’s Largest Hospital Suffering Booking System Chaos

Georgia Seeks Food Stamp System Fixes

Kansas Municipal Court Mistakenly Mails Arrest Warrant Notices

Maine Homeless Man “Given” $37 000 in ATM Glitch

UK Supermarket Chain Asda Charges £50 for Cabbage

Russia’s Glasnost GPS Experiences Problems

Software Problems Hit French Soldiers’ Pay

Springdale, Arkansas, Residents Receive Tsunami Warning

Nissan Recalls Nearly 1 Million Cars for Air Bag Software Fix

IT Hiccups of the WeekLast week saw a marked increase in the number and types of IT-related errors, bugs and malfunctions being reported.  However, as we have the past few weeks, we again begin this week’s IT Hiccups edition with an auto-related IT issue.

According to the Washington Post, 989 701 Nissan and Infiniti 2013 and 2014 model year vehicles are being recalled to fix a problem in the software that controls air bag deployment for the front seat passenger. They include: 544 000 Altima sedans; 29 000 Leaf electric vehicles; 124 000 Pathfinder SUVs; 183 000 Sentra compact cars; 6700 NV2000 taxis; and 104 000 Infiniti JX35, Q50 and QX60 vehicles.

The Post states that, “Unfortunately, the software installed on the vehicles…may incorrectly determine that the passenger seat is empty when it is, in fact, occupied. If that were to happen, and if the vehicle were subsequently involved in an accident, the passenger‐seat airbags would fail to deploy, increasing the possibility of injury or death.”

A New York Times article says that, “The automaker blamed the sensitivity of the software calibration, particularly when ‘a combination of factors such as high engine vibration at idle when the seat is initially empty and then becomes occupied’ or an ‘unusual’ seating posture are factors.”

Nissan indicates that it was aware of three such accidents, although no fatalities were reported, as a result of the collisions where airbags failed to activate. The company is working on a patch for the software, which should be available in the next few weeks.

In another software-related automobile recall, General Motors is recalling 656 of its 2014 Cadillac ELR vehicles in order to recalibrate software in the electronic control brake module that is part of its electronic stability control system.  GM also announced last week that it was recalling another 824 000 vehicles for issues with defective ignition switches I discussed a few weeks ago. It also announced recalls of another 662 000 other vehicles for various other mechanical issues. GM has now recalled over 4.8 million vehicles since the beginning of year. This week GM and the National Highway Transport Safety Administration will face Congressional hearings on their roles in regard to the delayed ignition switch recall.

Iowa Mayor Unhappy About Disclosure of Crime Reporting Software Problem

Matt Walsh, the mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is reportedly very unhappy that the state government was told by a local county board member that the new software system the local police use to record crime statistics was flawed. According to a World‐Herald News Service article, the Council Bluffs police department began using software last year provided by the Iowa Department of Transportation to enter local crime statistics. However, a software programming error “upgraded” many of the crimes entered. For instance, a simple assault reported by the police instead got changed by the software into a more serious aggravated assault.

The problem with the new software helped explain why Council Bluffs was recently listed as No. 56 on the most 100 most dangerous places to live in the U.S., the World-Herald said. Now, one would think the city’s mayor would be happy about the flaw being discovered and his city’s reputation as a criminal haven being rehabilitated. Yet, the Des Moines Register states that Mayor Welsh was incensed. Why? Well, the state provides crime enforcement grant funding to the city based on crime statistics, and the mayor is now worried the city may have to return some of the state grant money it received.

The Register quotes the mayor as saying, “What kind of individual runs to the state and tattles? …This money is to fight crime.” The mayor also claims that since the police department originally reported its crimes correctly, it isn’t the city’s fault that the software system provided by the state screwed up, so the money it previously received from the state is rightfully the city’s.

Hmm… maybe the teenager who found $31 000 mistakenly deposited in his account by the First Citizens Bank in Hull, Georgia a few weeks ago and who decided to spend it should have used the same ethical reasoning, instead of lying and pretending that the money was deposited on purpose as part his share of an inheritance from his grandmother’s estate.

Maryland Throws in the Towel on its Affordable Care Act Website

Today is the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (with some exceptions) until the next open enrollment season. To say the least, the introduction of the ACA on 1 October 2013 has been interesting to watch from an IT system risk mismanagement perspective, both at the federal and state level. Even now, the federal site still is reporting access issues.

However, five states— Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont— have given star performances in how not to create a state ACA website and supporting infrastructure systems. An Associated Press article provides a decent overview of the health insurance exchange implementation problems encountered in each state, as does another story at VTDigger.org that examines the issues confronting the Massachusetts and Vermont exchanges in greater depth.

However, for sheer incompetence, Maryland’s ACA implementation debacle really stands out (although Oregon's comes in a close second). After spending at least $125.5 million, Maryland has decided to basically abandon its exchange, the Washington Post reported. The state reportedly will be using the exchange system Connecticut has developed and is eager to sell to other states, which seems to work better than most.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into what went wrong with the Maryland's health insurance exchange. However, it is unlikely that any results will be published before the state primary elections in June. The reason is that Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who once proudly proclaimed that he was in charge of the Maryland ACA implementation, is running for governor, and I doubt the federal government wants to be seen as possibly interfering with the election. To say that Brown was asleep at the health exchange switch would be to assume, given his role in the unfolding debacle and his very recent claims that the exchange implementation is a “success,” that he knew where the switch was in the first place.

In Other News…

FAA Instructs Boeing to Fix Critical 747-8 Software Flaw

System Issues Delay Bombardier Learjet 85 First Flight

Illinois Demands DUI Offenders’ Pay Fines Years after Computer Error

Soyuz Spacecraft Suffers Software Issue on Trip to Space Station

Northern Ireland Hospital Staff hit by £400k Payroll Shortfall

Hundreds of Irish Motorists Receive Fines after M50 Toll Glitch

Price Glitch Charges £450 for Loaf of Bread in Wolverhampton, England

Denver-based Public Service Credit Union Experiences Four Days of Computer Problems

Allied Irish Bank Customers Double‐charged


Software Testing Problems Continue to Plague F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program

The U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week released its fifth annual report on the state of the F-35 Lightning II, aka the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), aka the “most costly and ambitious” acquisition program ever. What the GAO found was foretold by a report earlier this year by the Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. The upshot: the F-35 operational and support software development continues to be the major obstacle to the program's success.

In addition, the GAO report states that the projected cost of acquiring the planned 2443 F-35 aircraft (which comes in three flavors) threatens to consume some 20- to 25 percent of annual defense program acquisition funds for the next twenty years or so. The GAO doesn’t explicitly say so, but the operations and maintenance costs of the program—currently estimated to be between $800 billion and $1 trillion dollars or more over the next 50 years—will also consume a significant chunk of DoD’s annual weapon-system related O&M budget as well.

The GAO report states that, “Challenges in development and testing of mission systems software continued through 2013, due largely to delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered, and the need to fix problems and retest multiple software versions.”  Further, the GAO notes that the F-35 program continues to “encounter slower than expected progress in developing the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS),” which is the F-35’s advanced integrated maintenance and support system (pdf). In the latter case, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 Program Executive Officer, conceded last month that the ALIS system was “way behind” where it should be and was “in catch-up mode.” This, the GAO indicates, was apparently at least partly because of a lack of testing facilities that remains a problem years after ALIS development began.

The GAO notes that as a result of the on-going software problems with the aircraft's mission and support systems, F-35 program officials and contractors alike believe that software development will continue to be the F-35 program’s “most significant risk area.”

Software-testing related issues involving the development and fielding mission systems were the main thrust of this year’s GAO report.  The F-35, you may recall, is delivering its mission capabilities in a series of  incremental “software blocks,” designated as Block 1A/B, Block 2A, Block 2B, Block 3i, and Block 3F.  Each block builds on the mission capability developed in the preceding block. As described by the report, “Blocks 1 and 2A provide training capabilities and are essentially complete, with some final development and testing still underway. Blocks 2B and 3i provide initial warfighting capabilities and are needed by the Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively, to achieve initial operational capability. Block 3F is expected to provide the full suite of warfighting capabilities, and is the block the Navy expects to have to achieve its initial operational capability.” According to Flightglobal, a software Block 4 is being planned as an eventual mission capability upgrade for which development will begin late this year or more likely early next.

However, the GAO report states that, “Developmental testing of Block 2B software is behind schedule and will likely delay the delivery of expected warfighting capabilities,” required by the Marines for their variant of the F-35  (the F-35B) that is scheduled for delivery by July 2015. As of January of this year, “the program planned to have verified the functionality of 27 percent of the software’s capability on-board the aircraft, but had only been able to verify 13 percent,” says the GAO report. In more than a bit of an understatement, the GAO says that, “This leaves a significant amount of work to be done before October 2014, which is when the program expects to complete developmental flight testing of this software block.”

The GAO notes—and seems to agree with—the Operational Test and Evaluation Director's view that a more realistic estimate for when Block 2B’s software functional verification will be completed is sometime closer to November 2015. The report also notes that such a delay would create a knock-on effect to the subsequent F-35 software blocks as well, increasing the cost of the acquisition, not to mention delaying the planned initial operational capability (IOC) of the aircraft (2016 for the Air Force F-35As, and 2018 for the Navy F-35Cs).

Yet, despite everything it saw, the GAO indicates that the F-35 program office and contractors, and especially the Marines, seem to be all whistling along to Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The GAO states that, “Program and contractor officials have stated that while they recognize that the program faces software risks, they still expect to deliver all of the planned F-35 software capabilities to the military services as currently scheduled.” Why do they think so? Why, they are now going to introduce new approaches to gain “testing efficiency.” The plan: mainly by using “test results from one F-35 variant to close out test points for the other two variants in instances in which the variants have common functions.”  However, Bloomberg News quoted a recent RAND assessment of the F-35 program as stating that, “As of this writing, it is not clear how common the mission systems, avionics, software and engine will be among the three service variants,” so how much efficiency will in reality be gained remains to be seen.

In fact, in testimony before Congress yesterday, Lt. Gen Bogdan was reported by Reuters as saying he was “pretty confident” that Block 2B software would be delivered within 30 days of its current target date to allow the Marines to get to initial operational capability by July next year, as the software is “80 percent complete.” However, Bogdan also indicated that he was not as confident that even ten Marine F-35Bs would be IOC ready given that most of the 40-plus Marine F-35Bs will require some 96 engineering modifications by then.

Lt. Gen. Bogdan also disclosed at the hearing that “Block 3F [software] is dependent upon the timely release of Block 2B and 3I, and at present, 3F is tracking approximately four to six months late without taking steps to mitigate that delay.”

One does hope the program’s Block 2B software testing efficiency strategy is successful, since the GAO indicates the F-35 is scheduled to undergo operational testing in June of next year, “to determine that the aircraft variants can effectively perform their intended missions in a realistic threat environment.” If the new testing strategy is not successful, the GAO's view is that the cost of the F-35 acquisition and its future sustainment costs will just keep on escalating.

In response to the GAO report, the F-35 program office has agreed to deliver to Congress an assessment of the “risks of delivering required capabilities within the stated initial operational capability windows for each military service.” The GAO wants that assessment completed and the risks reported by July 2015, but the program hasn’t committed itself to any specific timetable to deliver a detailed assessment. As a Marine Corps Times article seems to suggest, future disclosures on the part of the program office concerning the risks of possible program schedule slips or cost increases will more than likely happen only in piecemeal fashion and by accident.

Of course, even if the F-35 Block 2B software is late—or one or more of the other software blocks are delayed for that matter—it really presages very little change in the general future direction of the program. Why? Well, in a CBS News 60 Minutes interview in February, Lt. Gen. Bogdan was asked, “Has the F-35 program passed the point of no return?” to which he replied, “I don't see any scenario where we're walking back away from this program.”

The GAO is officially scheduled to conduct one more annual review of the F-35 acquisition. The only purpose of it that I can see is merely to warn current and future U.S. taxpayers, many who are not yet born, how much more money they will have to shell out for the next 50 years or more.

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

U.S. Fines Toyota $1.2 Billion but Defers Criminal Prosecution Over Vehicle Safety Deceit

IT Hiccups of the Week Last week was another slow week concerning the number of IT-related malfunctions, bugs and kinks reported. So we decided to devote this week’s IT Hiccups to the U.S. Department of Justice's (DoJ's) controversial announcement last week of a massive fine and deferred criminal prosecution as punishment for Toyota having misled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the public about two safety issues. The deception was part of the automaker's attempt to beat back claims that “sticky pedal” and “floor mat entrapment” in its vehicles could lead to sudden unintended acceleration (SUA). We have been following the Toyota SUA saga in the Risk Factor for several years.

The DoJ announcement states that Toyota “defrauded consumers in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 by issuing misleading statements about safety issues in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.” In addition, Toyota “misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues affecting its vehicles, each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration.”  

Toyota admitted to the DoJ’s criminal charges in a statement of fact (pdf) which read in part that:

“Contrary to public statements that Toyota made in late 2009 saying it had ‘addressed’ the ‘root cause’ of unintended acceleration through a limited safety recall addressing floor mat entrapment, Toyota had actually conducted internal tests revealing that certain of its unrecalled vehicles bore design features rendering them just as susceptible to floor mat entrapment as some of the recalled vehicles. And only weeks before these statements were made, individuals within Toyota had taken steps to hide from its regulator another type of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, separate and apart from floor mat entrapment: the sticky pedal problem.”

The statement of fact also highlighted a January 2010 report of an apparent “smoking gun” discussion following a meeting between Toyota and NHTSA in which “one Toyota employee was said to exclaim, ‘Idiots! Someone will go to jail if lies are repeatedly told. I can’t support this.’”

The agreement between the DoJ and Toyota requires Toyota “to pay a $1.2 billion financial penalty—the largest penalty of its kind ever imposed on an automotive company, and imposes on Toyota an independent monitor to review and assess policies, practices and procedures relating to Toyota’s safety-related public statements and reporting obligations.”  If Toyota abides by the terms of the agreement and continues to cooperate with the U.S. government for the next three years, the criminal prosecution will be dismissed.  The Toyota fine is not tax-deductible, in case you are wondering.

U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley, who signed off on the DoJ-Toyota agreement last week, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal report as saying that Toyota’s activities “painted a reprehensible picture of corporate misconduct.” In addition, the judge said that, “I sincerely hope that this is not the end but rather the beginning to seek to hold those individuals responsible for making these decisions accountable.”

Toyota declined to make a comment in regard to the judge’s comments, preferring to let its published statement about the agreement say it all:

“At the time of these recalls, we took full responsibility for any concerns our actions may have caused customers, and we rededicated ourselves to earning their trust. In the more than four years since these recalls, we have gone back to basics at Toyota to put our customers first. … Importantly, Toyota addressed the sticky pedal and floor mat entrapment issues with effective and durable solutions, and we stand behind the safety and quality of our vehicles.”

You will no doubt notice that there is nothing in this settlement that addresses the other high-profile sudden unintended acceleration issue: a supposed hardware and/or software defect in Toyota’s electronic throttle system. As I noted at the end of last year, Toyota and the myriad lawyers suing it over that allegation are still in court-ordered negotiations, even as Toyota continues to maintain that there isn’t any electronics/software-related SUA defect but only human error involved.

Several commentators at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times have called the agreement an “unjust” “government shake-down” of Toyota. Their claim is that Toyota did nothing wrong other than perhaps, as one commentator put it, a “few incidences” where its employees “dithered about whether to report data to [NHTSA] right away and took pains to present facts to the public in the most flattering light.” In other words, Toyota didn’t violate any important safety procedures in its recall approach, just government paperwork requirements, despite Judge Pauley’s comments to the contrary. Toyota, they go on to maintain, only agreed to the $1.2 billion fine and deferred prosecution to put an end to what they see as the totally media-inspired public frenzy and besmirchment of Toyota's reputation.  

These commentators see GM as the next likely “victim” of government overreach when the Justice Department assesses penalties related to the case of the automaker's belated 3-million-vehicle ignition-switch recall. They point to the warning that Attorney General Eric Holder made in the news conference announcing the department's agreement with Toyota: “Other car companies should not repeat Toyota’s mistake: A recall may damage a company’s reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting.”

Of course, the “Toyota got railroaded” crowd don’t say what would rise to fraudulent and deceptive practices on Toyota’s part, or why GM should receive a pass from the DoJ, especially in light of GM’s own admissions. Their lines of reasoning might be more convincing if they had.

In Other News…

Electronic Voting Problems Concern Ontario Town

Computer Issue Slows Illinois County Vote Count

Louisiana Experiences Income Tax Refund Programming Glitch

Error Duplicates and Delays Fidelity Online Trading Orders

Google Hangouts, Talk, and Sheets Crash

Caltrain Suffers Dispatch Problems

Manila Metro Rail Transit Experiences Two Communication Problems in Three Days

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Fixes Glitch

Auckland District Health Board Hospitals Have Computer Problems Again

Northern Ireland Water Getting Refunds for Billing Errors

CMS Scrambles to Fix Healthcare.gov Programming Error

GM CEO: “We Admit It. Somebody Messed Up”

It’s late in the evening. The sun has just dipped below the horizon. You’re cruising along the local interstate at highway speed, listening to your favorite tune on the car stereo. Just as you’re about to go around a curve, the engine loses power. Making your state of panic worse is the fact that the steering wheel seems to have seized up. That’s because the electric motor that provides the power-assist steering has turned off. You’re not sure you have the strength to safely navigate the curve, so you tap the brake to slow down. But after the second tap, the engine-supplied vacuum that provides power-assist braking is gone. Technically, the brakes still work, but bringing the vehicle to a halt before you leave your lane and collide with another car—or run off the road completely—will require a stomp instead of a tap.

That set of circumstances actually occurred many times in GM vehicles. How often is still unknown. Millions of cars were equipped with a part that didn’t provide enough resistance to, say, a key ring swinging and rotating the car key so that the ignition was suddenly turned from the on (run) position to the off (accessory) position. There’s nothing to prevent that turn from happening except the tension provided by the spring in the part, known as a detent plunger. A bigger part with a longer, stronger spring was included beginning in 2008. But it replaces one that has been in vehicles since 2003.

It seems executives at General Motors, manufacturer of the Chevy Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Pontiac G5, Pontiac Pursuit, Pontiac Solstice, the Saturn Ion, and the Saturn Sky—vehicles that have been linked to a dozen deaths caused by such sudden shut-offs—knew about the problem for more than a decade but failed to act.

Yesterday, Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, said that the company will recall 1.5 million cars that include the part that has since been redesigned. The announcement comes just weeks after a February announcement that it planned to recall 1.6 million of the cars with the ignition switch problem.

Channeling her inner politician, Barra told GM employees in a video message that was posted online that, "Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened." Yes. Mistakes were made. But some all-important pronouns were missing from the message. Who made the mistakes? As federal regulators look into whether the ignition problem caused several hundred deaths instead of just a dozen and whether the problem involves more GM vehicles than those currently recalled, GM will soon find itself in the U.S. Congress’ crosshairs. The House of Representatives and the Senate have already said they want to schedule separate hearings to discuss possible criminal penalties related to the automaker so belatedly disclosing the issue

Barra said the company is changing how it handles defect investigations and recalls, and has done her best to distance GM’s current set of executives from the inevitable fallout. The damage control has gone so far as to include the creation of a new executive position dedicated to vehicle safety. But she and her colleagues will still have to provide reasonable answers to a simple question: If the ignition recall would have sent drivers in for a quick fix with a relatively cheap part—or GM could have avoided it altogether by putting the reengineered part on the assembly line—what was the calculus behind the initial decision to ignore the problem and subsequent inaction even after hundreds of complaints about sudden engine shut-offs?

“I don’t know how long you’ve been covering this business, but I’ve been in it for 50 years,” says Michael E. Bresnock, head of Transportation Technology, Inc., a Marietta, Ga.-based firm that does accident investigations and technical analysis of vehicle faults and failures. “A difference of a dollar will determine whether a car is going to roll down the assembly line.”

Another vehicle expert who actually worked for GM for decades and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, tried to imagine what the company’s executives were thinking when they repeatedly declined to make the fix. “I guess they told themselves that it is the operator’s responsibility to ensure that he or she doesn’t sit in a way that causes them to bump the ignition switch or to avoid putting too many keys on a keychain.” Asked whether they could still adhere to that reasoning knowing that most drivers were completely unaware that this could happen—and had happened, with deadly results—he imagined the executives taking morbid comfort in the fact that when a car suddenly shuts off, “You’ll still have brakes and steering; you just lose power assist.”

GM is going to need some serious legal power assist in order to step out of the hot water it’s gotten itself into.

Chrysler: "I Brake for Electronics Recalls"

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week was an extremely slow week with regard to the number of IT-related problems, snafus, and bugs reported. So we decided to dedicate this week’s IT Hiccups to the increasingly common occurrence of an automotive recall to fix a vehicle’s electronics or software.

As reported by Reuters, Chrysler announced last week that it was recalling a total of 25 250 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs from model years 2012 and 2013 to improve anti-lock brake pedal feel “during certain aggressive braking maneuvers.”  According to the Chrysler, a supplier raised an issue with a part that supports Ready Alert Braking, a safety system that primes a car’s brakes in anticipation of a driver making an emergency stop.

Chrysler literature says that Ready Alert Braking “anticipates situations when the driver may initiate an emergency brake stop and uses the electronic stability control (ESC) pump to set brake pads against rotors in order to decrease the time required for full brake application.”

The LA Times reports that while the brake worked as designed and was in compliance with safety requirements, customers were complaining about an “odd feeling in the brake pedal” that was traced to factory settings that overly restricted the flow of brake fluid. A software update was being issued, Chrysler stated, “to improve the flow and restore appropriate pedal feel.”

Chrysler also announced that it is recalling 19 500 Fiat 500L cars from the 2014 model year to fix an issue affecting their automated dual‐clutch transmission. The company says that car owners complained that the vehicles would not shift out of park quickly or readily into the gear selected by the driver. Apparently, the problem is tied to a specific microcontroller component in the transmission that fails to operate correctly in extreme temperatures. A software update fixes the problem in all but about 200 vehicles; in those vehicles, a shift-module replacement may be necessary to ensure hardware-software compatibility, the company said.

Neither of the recalls were in response to reported accidents or injuries.

There was word of another vehicle software issue last week, but it affected only one rather special vehicle. According to ESPN, an engine software programming problem affected Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull Formula 1 racing car during qualifying for yesterday’s Australian Grand Prix. The team said that the problem “meant he was down on power with extremely poor drivability,” and was the reason Vettel only qualified for 12th place on the starting grid, his poorest starting position since 2012.

Apparently, the software issue wasn’t completely fixed before the starting flag was waved; Vettel—who had won nine consecutive F1 races—dejectedly retired from the race after only a few laps when he continued to sense a lack of engine power.

Last week also saw a story published by the London Telegraph claiming that “increasingly complicated electronics in cars have prompted a surge in expensive breakdowns.” Based on data gleaned from 50 000 insurance policies from Warranty Direct for vehicles three years or older, the Telegraph says “the number of electrical faults in cars has risen by two thirds over the past five years, with repair bills rising by one third.” On average, nearly one in four drivers will experience an electronics-related problem over the course of a year, compared with only one in ten drivers five years ago, the newspaper said. The average cost for fixing a problem has also climbed from £221 to £291 over the same period.

The Telegraph data indicate that the Subaru had the fewest electronic issues while Renault had the most. However, the next least reliable manufacturers listed were Bentley and Porsche, apparently because their vehicles are typically fitted with the latest electronic systems. The average repair cost for an electronic problem was reported as £670 in a Bentley and £757 in a Porsche, but I suspect the owners of these luxury cars are far less concerned about the cost of repairs as much as their frequency.

Finally, the GM recall of 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles for an ignition switch problem that has resulted in at least a dozen deaths continues to make headlines.  Regulators are now investigating whether the issue has in fact resulted in several hundred deaths, and there is concern that the problem involves more GM vehicles than those currently recalled.  The U.S. Congress is looking to schedule hearings into the recall while the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether GM is criminally liable for not disclosing the ignition switch problem earlier.  No doubt, pointed questions will also be raised during the congressional hearings into the excuses the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration is giving for failing to launch a full scale investigation even after receiving 260 complaints of vehicles suddenly shutting down.

In Other News …

California DMV Suffers Computer Problems Two Consecutive Days

Food Stamp “Glitch” Affects 27 000 Floridians

Mars Orbiter Goes Into Sleep Mode Again as NASA Readies Fix

UK House of Parliament Experiencing Frustrating IT Outages

London Transport Refunds £11 000 after Oyster Card Bus Overpayment Error

Twitter Crashes for Second Time in Two Weeks Due to Software Update Problem

Healthcare.gov Problems Stymie 84 000 Medicaid Requests in Michigan

College Exam Papers Lost Due to Software Error

Tesco Computer Identifies Teaspoons as Age Restricted Purchase Item

Photo: Chrysler Group

UK Coroner Fingers NHS Computer System in Toddler’s Death

IT Hiccups of the WeekThe number of IT-related errors, ooftas, and deficiencies reported last week reverted back towards the mean from the previous week's overabundance. We start off this edition of IT Hiccups with a sad case of a child’s death in the UK. The tragedy is being attributed in part to the past effort to fully computerize the UK’s National Health Service.

According to the Bristol Post, a coroner in charge of the inquest into the death of Samuel Starr, aged three, indicated in a narrative verdict that, “Due to the failure of the [Royal United] hospital's outpatient booking system, there was a five month delay in Samuel being seen and receiving necessary treatment.”  It is very rare for a coroner to criticize a hospital IT system so directly.

Samuel Starr was born with “complex congenital heart disease” in 2009. His parents were told at the time of his birth that Samuel would need several operations before he was five, and in fact, Samuel underwent an operation when he was nine months old. The Post reported that he made a good recovery, and was due to have regular checkups and further treatment at the Pediatric Cardiac Clinic at the Royal United Hospital (RUH) in Bath. Samuel received a checkup in October 2010 and one in April 2011, at which time his parents were told by his doctor to schedule another in about nine months for a more extensive examination of his heart.

However, a new electronic health record system, called Cerner Millennium, was being installed in 2011 at the hospital as part of the NHS’s National Program for IT (NPfIT), which was shortly thereafter cancelled. Though the main program was cancelled, certain elements, such as its national Choose and Book system for patient scheduling, remained. (Hospitals, like at Royal United, that were already installing electronic health record systems were given the go-ahead to proceed if they wished).

According to the Daily Mirror, “glitches” in the Royal United patient booking system caused Samuel not to receive his scheduled appointment with heart specialists as required, despite pleas for an appointment by his parents and a primary care specialist. The Mirror stated that medical secretary for Samuel's doctor insisted that she had taken down the appointment details and forwarded them on to a dedicated appointments team, but they were apparently not logged in. “While Samuel's medical records had been created on the new Millennium computer program, no appointments had been transferred across [from the old scheduling system],” the Mirror explained.

By the time Samuel was eventually seen, his heart condition had taken a turn for the worse, and he required immediate surgery. Unfortunately, the child died after enduring a series of cardiac arrests a few weeks after his surgery.

While it is not certain that Samuel would have lived if he had been seen earlier, the inquest did highlight that he was not the only patient who didn't receive timely medical care due to problems with that same hospital’s appointments system. BBC News reported that, “Minutes of board meetings in RUH a year before Samuel's death show the hospital was fully aware of the problems with their new computer system. They reveal ‘there were significant issues with...data that had not been migrated which affected...long-term follow-up appointments.’” Some 63 overdue pediatric cardiac appointments in all were uncovered, “with some taking nearly two years to discover,” the BBC story stated.

The Royal United Hospital has since corrected its booking/EHR system problems, and has apologized to Samuel Starr’s family. However, the episode does lead one to wonder why hospital administrators didn’t work harder to look for missing patient appointments after the issue was identified not only at their hospital, but also at other NHS hospitals implementing the same booking and EHR system during the same time frame.

Votes Go Missing for Two Years

An AP story last week reported that 3971 early votes cast in Warrick County, Indiana, during the 2012 general election went uncounted until recently “because of an error by an electronic voting machine technician.”

The AP story said that the missing votes were discovered “by a Democratic precinct leader who recently was cross referencing precinct summary reports with a state voter history report.” The precinct leader was surprised to find out that the summary reports of tallied machine and paper votes for the county had a discrepancy of more than 3700 votes.

Further investigation revealed that “Indianapolis‐based MicroVote General Corp., which services the county's electronic voting machines, found that one of their technicians incorrectly uploaded early votes,” the AP story said.

Luckily, the missing votes would not have changed the outcome of the election. There was no word as to what would have happened if they had.

In a similar vote-delay incident, the Port Arthur News in Texas reported that “a misplaced flash drive and, later, a software glitch, delayed election results in Jefferson County by more than four hours on Tuesday.” The flash drive, the News stated, was found in a locked-up early voting station polling machine, while “a glitch in the software deleted information containing the number of registered voters in each precinct” and necessitated manually inputting the precinct voter registration numbers.  

Delhi Police “Lost” Password for Eight Years

The Indian Express reported last week that some 667 complaints by the public regarding the conduct of the Delhi Police that were forwarded by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC)—which investigates the complaints and either addresses them itself or sends them via an online portal to the police to deal with—have been awaiting resolution for the past eight years.

The reason? The Express stated that the “Delhi Police didn’t know the password to access the portal or how to operate it, a lapse that went undetected since 2006.”

It wasn’t until January of this year that two high ranking Delhi police officers were given the needed training by the CVC to access and operate the portal.

The Express reported that the CVC hosts meetings every year with government departments to review the complaints it receives about those agencies. However, since 2006, “the CVC had got no feedback on complaints pending with the police.” For an unexplained reason, the CVC finally became curious over the lack of feedback early this year, and discovered the reason behind it.

Delhi police officials indicate that they are now addressing the backlog of complaints against the department.

Coroner Says NHS Computer System Partly to Blame for Toddler’s Death

Coroner Blames “Failure” of NHS Computer System for Boy's Death

Three-year-old Dies after New NHS Computer System Delays Heart Treatment Appointment

Hospital Booking System “May Have Contributed to Death”

Coroner Criticizes Hospital’s IT System After Boy’s Death

Votes Found Two Years after Election

Jefferson County Finds 3700 Untallied Votes from 2012 Election

Software Glitch Delays Port Arthur Election Count

Delhi Police Finally Address Complaints Against It, Some From Eight Years Ago

667 Vigilance Complaints Pile Up as Delhi Police Claim Password Ignorance

Delhi Police Complaints Mount as Police Lose Password for Eight Years

In Other News…

RTÉ Primetime Team Oblivious to 13 Minute Technical Glitch

Software Failure Causes Power Outage at Notre Dame

Blackberry Experiences 5-Hour Outage

Computer Problem Shuts Down California DMV License Applications

Twitter Mass User Password Reset Blamed on Error

Despite Pledges, Npower Still Refusing to Fix UK Utility Billing Errors

Feds and Florida Still at Odds Over New Unemployment System

Photo: Alamy


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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