United, NYSE, WSJ Outages: Cyber-apocalypse or Coincidence?

It was a trifecta of computer outages: United Airlines grounded all flights, the New York Stock Exchange shut down trading and the Wall Street Journal website also went down—all at the same time? Was it a sign of the cyber-apocalypse?

A lot of people sure thought so. Panic was in the air: Independent researcher Graham Cluley said that he was almost immediately swamped with enquiries about the mysterious triumvirate of outages—were they connected? Was China behind it?

“My guess is that they turned a piece of equipment off and on again, and got things back to normal,” he said in a post. “Okay, so maybe it was a bit more complicated than that - but in my experience that's the basic solution for most IT problems. Similarly, the NYSE could be suffering from a technical glitch that has nothing to do with hoody-wearing hackers in the employ of the People's Liberation Army.”

And indeed, according to both corporate and US officials, the outages were not related and had nothing to do with hacking—though we could be forgiven for thinking that they might be. As someone who covers the hacking landscape for a living, let me just say that what’s happening out there, from basic espionage to secretly watching people via their own webcams to taking over air traffic control systems and on and on and on… is enough to keep anyone up at night. Or make someone leap to conclusions. And then veer into conspiracy theory.

This Slacker grew up during the last days of the Cold War, when it felt entirely believable that the Soviets not only could but probably would launch ICBMs over the white fence and straight at mom, dad and the family's apple pie, touching off a nuclear winter and mutual assured destruction. Does anyone remember The Day After? That seemed to be a pretty accurate picture of the future at the time.

In many ways, today’s threat landscape feels the same—only in a virtual sense.

"With all of the breaches and fallout from them over the last year, everyone's is on edge whenever there's a major outage, and worried that it's ‘the big one’ - the attack that takes down a critical resource, and public trust along with it,” said Brad Taylor, CEO at Proficio, via email. “The fact is that virtually all of the big corporations are hit by known attackers thousands or tens of thousands of times each day. Hackers are constantly probing defenses and testing attack strategies.”

But, we need to be careful not to get too Chicken Little about it all.

Quorum, the disaster recovery company, pointed out that 95% of system outages are indeed caused by normal day-to-day occurrences: 55% from technical failures, 22% from human errors and 18% from software failures.

“While all three organizations have arguably some of the best IT staff in the world, almost 90 percent of downtime is caused by internal technical issues as mundane as router failure, software upgrades or a network outage due to HVAC failure,” Kemal Balioglu, Quorum vice president of products, told Infosecurity.

But, even without it being a cyberattack led by an angry Chinese military, it’s worth noting that the damage is likely to be extensive. United after all actually grounded its planes. All of its planes.

“While it will take a while to determine the real cost and impact of downtime to NYSE, United and WSJ, it was certainly more than the $100,000 per hour as the cost often stated by industry analysts,” Balioglu said.

What’s Hot on Infosecurity Magazine?