IT Hiccups of the Week: Digital Navigation Error Leads to Dismantling of U.S. Navy Ship

There was a real potpourri of IT-related glitches, snarls, and snafus to choose from last week. We start off with the lingering after-effects of the grounding of the USS Guardian on a Philippine reef—which we first noted a few weeks ago.

U.S. Navy Decides to Scrap Minesweeper Stuck on Ecologically Sensitive Philippine Reef

On 17 January, the U.S. Navy minesweeper USS Guardian ran hard aground on a reef within the protected Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Philippine waters where it remains stuck. A preliminary assessment indicates that the ship was following a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency-supplied Coastal Digital Nautical Chart (DNC) that “misplaced the location of a reef by about eight nautical miles.” The reef is located in a UNESCO World Heritage restricted zone, and any damage caused to the reef is heavily fined.

The Navy had hoped that it could wrestle the USS Guardian free without too much damage to the reef or the ship, but those hopes were dashed when the 23-year-old wooden-hulled ship started taking on water.  As a result, the Navy decided that the best option was to dismantle the ship and remove it as three separate sections. A floating crane from Singapore is being brought in to help with the ship’s removal.

An interesting story last week at the website Maritime Accident Casebook indicates that the navigational snafu has been attributed to human error at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). According to the story, the NGA decided to update its navigational charts in 2008 using  LANDSAT-derived imagery because of the age and uncertainty of information shown on the nautical charts in that area of the Pacific (some dating back to 1940 and 1942, an earlier MA Casebook article says). Some of the old charts even indicated the presence of “phantom islands.”

Quoting an NGA spokesperson, “One of these images included incorrect information about the location of the section of ocean that includes the Tubbataha Reef. At the time, no other source information existed to validate that imagery data. As a result, the reef was incorrectly placed in the DNC.”

Then, in 2011, the NGA became aware of the error, and corrected all the charts except one: that being the one for the area around the Tubbataha Reef. According to the NGA, this was a result of “a failure to follow established procedure.”

In the wake of the incident, the NGA has reexamined charts covering “more than 116 million square nautical miles of ocean” and found only one other error of a “magnitude similar to the misplacement of the Tubbataha Reef.” That one corresponded to an area off the coast of Chile. Mariners have been warned of the discrepancy.

The Navy expects that it will take about a month to remove the USS Guardian. The fine to be levied is unknown, but it is likely to be substantial. The political price may be substantial as well.

Technical Issues Hit Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal  and Twitter

A cluster of IT glitches last week hit some well-known companies. First, on Monday, there were reports that PayPal customers ended up being charged multiple times for their transactions over a period of about three hours. PayPal has strongly denied The Register's claims the problem lasted 15 hours. A story at FierceCIO says that the multiple-charge problem was the result of instant payment notifications that were delayed in being sent back to customers. The delay caused many customers to think their PayPal transactions didn’t go through, causing them to make one or more additional payments. PayPal says that, “All customers will be refunded for duplicate transactions as soon as possible.”

Then on Thursday, Amazon suffered a 49-minute outage that made its homepage inaccessible, although it said that its other pages were fine. Amazon has been closed-mouthed about what caused the outage, other than to say it wasn’t hacked nor was it a problem with its cloud. It has been estimated that the cost to the company will be around $5 million in lost revenue.

Also on Thursday, Twitter said in a message to its users that there were “intermittent issues affecting Web and mobile users, globally, between approximately 7:00am and 9:50am PST.” The message  went on to say that, “We apologize to users who were affected by this, and we’re working to ensure that similar issues do not occur.” The message did not say what those issues were.

In an apparently unrelated matter, Twitter then announced Friday that it had “discovered one live [security] attack and were able to shut it down in process moments later. However, our investigation has thus far indicated that the attackers may have had access to limited user information—usernames, email addresses, session tokens and encrypted/salted versions of passwords—for approximately 250,000 users.”

As a precaution, Twitter has “reset passwords and revoked session tokens for these accounts.” Affected users will be receiving an email asking them to reset their passwords; if you get one, just be careful it isn’t phish.

Also on Friday, Bank of America said that its electronic banking operations and telephone call centers were inaccessible. The Washington Post reported that the problem was caused by unexplained “technical issues” rather than a cyber attack. And according to a story at the BBC which coincidentally was published on Friday, no one should be surprised by similar outages at other banks this year because of the ever increasing complexity of banking software.

Another Week, Another Stock Market Gaffe

This week’s stock market gaffe happened Friday on India's National Stock Exchange. In this case, an error in the software being used by the brokerage Religare Capital Markets Ltd. caused TaTa Motors' stock price to fall by 10 percent. Religare was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying, “Due to some technical issue in the software, unintended transactions got executed.”

Bloomberg said that the error will likely cost the brokerage some 100 million rupees (around US $1.8 million).

Last year you may recall there was another trading glitch that caused the National Stock Exchange (NSE) Nifty index to plunge over 800 points in a few minutes, wiping out some $58 billion in value from the fourth largest market in Asia.

Saving London’s Iconic Black Cabs – At Least for Now

Finally, last October, I noted that Manganese Bronze, the maker of the iconic London black taxi, announced that it was going into administration—the U.K. version of U.S. bankruptcy law's Chapter 11. The reason was an accounting error that went unseen for over two years when the company switched to new accounting software. The result: the company understated by £3.9 million its historical losses. Given the poor economic health of the company and the intense competition in London’s taxi market, Manganese Bronze stock took a nosedive when the accounting error became public. It looked like only a matter of time before the company, which was then worth roughly £5 million, would go belly up.

Fortunately, last week, Chinese car manufacturer company Zhejiang Geely, which already owned 20 percent of Manganese Bronze, decided to buy the rest of the company and its assets for £11.04 million “through a newly established British subsidiary, Geely UK,” the London Telegraph reported. The new owners say they are “confident” the business will be profitable within three years.

I hope so. London wouldn’t really be the same without those black taxis.

 

Photo: Naval Aircrewman 3rd Class Geoffrey Trudell/U.S.Navy

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