The summertime streak of interesting IT snafus, tangles and general “oops” incidents continues unabated. We start off with a story that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend that may make you reconsider your meat-cooking preference for your next outdoor barbeque.
U.S. Agriculture Meat Inspection Computer Outage Means Meat and Poultry Left Uninspected
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers it to be a non-issue, since there have yet to be any documented instances of people having gotten sick. However, one wonders how long it will be before the continuing problems with a new $20 million computer system upon which some 3000 meat and poultry inspectors working at 6300 packing and processing plants across the U.S. depend on contribute to a major food-borne illness outbreak.
According to a Saturday New York Times story, the computer system the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) meat and poultry inspectors use has experienced several recent break downs. Earlier this month, for instance, it shut down for two days, putting “at risk [consumers of] millions of pounds of beef, poultry, pork and lamb that had left the plants before workers could collect samples to check for E. coli bacteria and other contaminants.”
What's the risk? Well, a USDA report (pdf) states that, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that E. coli O157:H7 causes about 73,000 cases of illness and 61 deaths annually in the U.S. The USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that the total costs associated with consuming E. coli-contaminated meat are about $488 million annually.”
The new computer system was installed in 2011 as a way to help hasten the meat and poultry inspection process. Previously, it could take days before inspected food flagged as being contaminated could be traced to the offending plant. The new system speeds up completion of the paperwork used to trace inspected meat and poultry, dramatically reducing the time needed to identify the source of any compromised food. That's under normal circumstances. The downside is that when the computer system isn’t working, which inspectors tell the Times happens frequently, meat and poultry sometimes go without being inspected at all.
Last year, computer system issues led to problems at 18 meat processing and packing plants. The Times stated that, “At one of the plants, auditors found that inspectors had not properly sampled some 50 million pounds of ground beef for E. coli over a period of five months. At another plant, which the report identified as among the 10 largest slaughterhouses in the United States, auditors found that computer failures had caused inspectors to miss sampling another 50 million pounds of beef products.”
But not to worry, the USDA says. Many of the highlighted problems have been corrected. Additionally, USDA officials claim, the problem wasn’t really with the computer system itself, but with balky wireless networks the computer system has to connect to in the rural areas where many meat processing and packing plants operate.
Does that mean that the USDA doesn’t include the communication system as part of an overall system test before it fields such a system? Regardless of the answer, questions abound; mainly because USDA field inspectors told the Times that even where wireless connections are first-rate, the computer system still keeps crashing.
Until the reliability of the USDA’s computer system improves, you may want to make sure your meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked.
U.K. Post Computer System Leads to False Theft Accusations
The Daily Mail published a story last week about the four-year fight between Tom Brown, of South Stanley, County Durham and the U.K. Post Office over charges that Brown, a sub-postmaster, fiddled £85,426 from its accounts. Last week, the Mail reported, the Post Office decided to drop its two civil court charges of false accounting against Brown (the police decided two years ago not to pursue the case), and a judge has recorded not-guilty verdicts.
Brown is one of more than 100 people across the U.K. that the Post Office has accused of theft since the introduction of its £1 billion Horizon computer system, used to record transactions across its 14 000-branch network, over a decade ago. However, Brown and the others claimed that the disappearance of the money they were accused of stealing was caused by computer problems with the Horizon system that created false shortfalls in the sub-postmasters’ financial accounts.
The U.K. paper Computer Weekly has been diligently following this story for years, noting that sub-postmasters were complaining about computer problems as far back as 2003. However, the U.K. Post Office steadfastly refused to believe that there was anything wrong with the Horizon system. It was convinced that those whom it had accused of stealing were merely using “computer glitches” as an excuse to hide their theft.
In fact, the Post Office was even able to convince some U.K. judges that the Horizon system was extremely reliable and didn’t make mistakes. As a result, some sub-postmasters were sent to jail and many lost their homes or went bankrupt in order to pay back the alleged shortfalls in their accounts.
However, as more and more sub-postmasters were accused, the Post Office finally succumbed to pressure to conduct an investigation into the Horizon system just this past year. In July of this year, as word filtered out that the system’s reliability wasn't as phenomenal as claimed, the Post Office finally admitted that the investigation did find defects in the system that caused accounting shortfalls at 76 branches. In light of those shortfalls, the Post Office stated that more investigation would be required into the system's operations, BBC News reported.
The Post Office also stated it would be looking into how to “take better account” of sub-postmaster complaints “going forward,” but did not directly address those lodged by the dozens who say they were falsely accused. Maybe it is because they are looking to bring legal action against the Post Office.
Like all good bureaucracies, the Post Office also proposed to set up a working group to investigate further the problems so far uncovered.
Wall Street Journal Doesn’t Let Rival’s Crisis Go to Waste
Finally, last Wednesday morning, the New York Times website and mobile app suffered a two-hour outage, although new articles didn’t appear until about four hours after the site and the app first became unavailable. Speculation ran rampant that the Times was the victim of a cyberattack, but the Times said the incident was likely the result of a “scheduled maintenance update being pushed out.”
However, soon after the outage began at 11:10 a.m., which is the start of the peak traffic time for the paper, the Wall Street Journal decided to try to capitalize on its rival's misfortune by lowering its own pay wall for two hours. The Journal later said it lowered its pay wall not because of the New York Times outage, but because of the violent protests then happening in the Egypt.
Google also suffered an outage last week, but only for a few minutes. Reports were that Internet traffic dropped by some 40 percent because of it.
Microsoft, which has been taking very public potshots at Google, remained mum on the Google outage. Was it, perhaps, because Microsoft seems to be having significant problems of its own with Outlook.com over the past week?
Of Other Interest…
Photo: Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images
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.