We start off this week’s review of IT-related “ooftas” with one that most of us have probably done at one time or another: accidentally hitting “reply-all” to an email. However, we probably never did it when the email ended up being sent to nearly 40 000 people.
That's exactly what happened last week when New York University sophomore Max Wiseltier attempted to forward an informational email to his mother from the school’s bursar office which described the use of a new, electronic tuition form but Wiseltier hit reply-all instead. Typically, nothing would have happened since the email list the university normally uses for its general distribution emails to students does not allow reply-all to sent messages. However, in this case, the NYU Student Resource center which sent out the email magnified Wiseltier's mistake by accidentally using a distribution list that allowed reply-alls.
So, Wiseltier’s email, in which he asked his mother “do you want me to do this?” was sent out to all 39,979 NYU students. You can imagine what happened next. The university eventually ended the ever growing number of responding emails the next day, but not before Wiseltier and his “Replyallcalypse,” as it was dubbed, reached celebrity status.
A few years ago, a similar error at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security caused a security ruckus.
Unlike Wiseltier’s case, another keyboard error brought nothing but grief for a Catholic deacon in Des Moines, Iowa, who was out delivering food to a homebound person, a story in the Des Moines Register reported. The deacon, Quan Tong, was sitting in his car outside the homebound person’s home when a police car passed by and thought, for whatever reasons, it looked suspicious. The police officer ran Tong’s plates which showed that Tong’s license was revoked. The officer arrested Tong, who spent the next six hours in jail until his wife could bail him out.
For some unexplained reason, a data entry error at Iowa’s Department of Transportation made it appear that Tong’s license had indeed been revoked. But that information was incorrect. The story in Register didn’t say how the error was discovered, but the police, the county attorney, and the DoT have all apologized to Tong for the mistake. They are also working on returning Tong’s bail money and car impound fees, as well as trying to ensure that all traces of his arrest are removed from Iowa’s Courts Online database.
Another unexplained problem—most likely another keyboard-related error—caused the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group (CME, which operates the world's leading derivatives market) to issue an erroneous Deliverable Commodities Under Registration Report last Thursday. According to a CME press release, the report, which commodity traders use to make decisions about their trading positions, indicated that 164 wheat shipping certificates had been registered for delivery with the Chicago Board of Trade on Wednesday. The report omitted the fact that there were an additional 2 000 contracts that had been registered with the trade board on Wednesday. The CME corrected its error about 2 hours later, but by then, the damage was done.
CME announced that it would “assume responsibility for actual losses associated with this reporting error.” It didn’t apologize for the error or promise that it wouldn't happen again, however. I guess the CME assumes that given all the recent stock exchange related errors, an apology wouldn't be believed anyway.
In another exchange-related error, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that a computer error two days earlier caused Nasdaq OMX Group Inc.'s (NDAQ) system “to wildly overstate the size of an order for Swedish stock-index futures.” The error caused Nasdaq to halt its index futures and options trading on the Stockholm market for the day. The WSJ story says a “trader entered an order to buy or sell six OMX30 futures contracts expiring in December [but] because of a 'bug' in Nasdaq’s system that disseminates information to customers’ trading applications, the order showed up as 4.2 billion contracts instead.” The bug was fixed a few hours later.
Another programming error is causing holiday season heartburn for hundreds of non-profits and local governments in South Carolina. According to a story at television station WJBF, a Department of Employment and Workforce computer program incorrectly accounted for the days which unemployed workers were allowed to file for benefits. As a result, employers were not billed for their portion of unemployment benefits the Department of Employment and Workforce paid out to the laid off workers (some $542 000 out of the $8.6 million in total benefits paid). The state will be sending out bills for the amount owed by the non-profits and local governments very soon. Happy holidays!
Finally, in a bit of better holiday season news, the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reported that Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power has fixed the billing error that caused it to over-charge 4664 of its customers a total of over $1 million. The affected customers were billed from January 2005 to October 2012 for a utility-related “franchise fee” that they exempt from having to pay. The error was discovered only after a customer complained about the fee being tacked on to his bill.
The Tribune-Eagle reported that customers are receiving refunds averaging between $15 and $20 dollars, which means the fee probably amounted to less than 30 cents on a customer’s monthly bill. It explains why the affected customers never noticed it or just shrugged it off for the past seven years.
The Eagle also said that Cheyenne Light found 232 customers that should have been paying the fee and were not. All those customers have reportedly already paid the company what was owed.
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.