We start off this week’s potpourri of IT–related snafus and snarls with an unusual one from North Las Vegas.
The Case of the Missing Sprint Cellphones
According to a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, since 2011, people keep showing up at Wayne Dobson’s house demanding that he return their lost or stolen Sprint cellphones. Police also have shown up demanding entrance after being sent to his house on suspicion of domestic violence because of calls 911 operators received from Sprint cell phones. The only trouble is that Hobson, who lives alone, doesn’t have any of the phones.
The Review-Journal cited telecom experts who speculated the problem might be an intermittent error in a Sprint’s local switchboard software that is used to determine the GPS coordinates of its cell phones. As a resul, they say, some owners of lost or stolen Sprint cell phones, as well as the police, are being directed to Dobson’s house by mistake.
Dobson, who has been awakened at all hours of the night by both the police and irate cellphone owners demanding he return their cellphones, is not amused. He has posted a sign on his house saying that he doesn’t have any lost or stolen cellphones, but that isn’t likely to deter someone who thinks their phone is at his house. It definitely is not going to deter the police, who although aware of the glitch, say that if they get a 911 domestic violence call, “they will still send officers to the scene unless they can confirm that there isn’t actually a problem there.”
Sprint told the Review-Journal last week that it “will research the issue thoroughly and try to get to the bottom of what is going on and if it has anything to do with our company.”
And according to a story today at the Review-Journal, Sprint says it has indeed gotten to bottom of the problem. There isn’t any error on our part, Sprint told the paper; the issue is a result of people who don’t understand “the inaccuracy of cellphone location software.”
Sprint told the paper that, “Location search results … are intended to be interpreted as anywhere within a several-hundred-meter-wide circular area - not the center point of the circle itself.”
I think that's news to most people.
Sprint went on to tell the Review-Journal that it can help the police understand when there is inaccurate location information coming from their cellphones, but “as for private citizens who use the technology to track their lost or stolen cellphones, there's nothing the company can do beyond educating them,” Sprint said. In other words, Dobson may still receive knocks on his door at all times of night.
Sprint's statement somewhat begs the question of what "inaccurate location information" means - being anywhere within a several-hundred-meter-wide circular area seems pretty inaccurate to me to begin with. Does Sprint mean that if the circular area displayed to the police is a several-thousand-meter-wide circular area it will help reduce it to a several-hundred-meter-wide circular area?
Sprint also told the paper, “We sincerely regret the inconvenience experienced by Mr. Dobson."
The Review-Journal found that Dobson’s experience is not unique. According to the paper, the same "knock at the door" has happened to folks living in New Orleans, Louisiana, Decatur, Georgia and San Antonio, Texas, all involving Sprint phones.
I wonder if Sprint sincerely regrets the inconvenience experienced by them, too.
Navy Minesweeper Runs Aground: Digital Map Error May Be Involved
The Defense News reported over the weekend that the minesweeper USS Guardian which ran hard aground on 17 January and remains stuck on a reef within the protected Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Philippine waters may have been following a digital navigation map that “misplaced the location of a reef by about eight nautical miles.” As a result of the grounding, U.S. Navy ships have been ordered “to operate with caution when using [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency]-supplied Coastal Digital Nautical Charts due to an identified error in the accuracy of charting in the Sulu Sea.”
The U.S. Navy is currently trying to minimize the damage to the reef, which is in a Unesco World Heritage restricted zone. So far there have been no reports of fuel or oil leaks from the ship, although the ship is reportedly taking on water. However, the U.S. Navy can expect to pay heavy fines any damage caused to the reef.
A few years ago, the British Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) issued a warning to commercial ship operators about the dangers of relying too much on electronic navigation charts.
New Computer System Confuses Paternity
A story at The Tribune-Democrat last week reported that “the Division of Vital Records at the [Pennsylvania] Department of Health, which was switching to a new computer system” had sent out official birth certificates to 500 families that incorrectly listed the name of the father.
According to the story, the names are correct on the state’s main computer system, but when the Division of Vital Records “went to print out the new birth certificates, data for the father's first and last names were pulled from the wrong fields, which caused the documents to be filled out incorrectly.”
The state is telling those families that received the incorrectly printed birth certificates to send them back and they will get new ones.
And as far as I can tell from looking through the various news reports, the Division of Vital Records spokesperson didn’t bother with expressing “it regrets the inconvenience” tagline. How refreshingly honest.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.