The 5 Most Stupidly Disastrous Military Computer Glitches
Highly trained military personnel, despite the whole "highly trained" part, are oftentimes just as bad with computers as we are. Of course, when we screw up, it's usually a minor inconvenience. When they do it, entire countries are put at risk, if not the whole damn planet. Like the time ...
The Army Forgot to Password-Protect Their Top-Secret Spy Drones
In order to protect your data from being stolen by hackers or your Wi-Fi from being mooched upon by freeloading neighbors, you need to encrypt it. That's Computer Security 101. Unless you make your password something asinine, like "password," "computer," or your own name like a total dumbass, you'll be the only one who can see the shameful, shameful things you've dragged down your wireless signal.
So if you go to all that trouble to secure your archive of Instagrammed lunches, you would think the military would have the wherewithal to lock down, say, their deadly flying robot army.
Because everyone knows that bad security means a Facebook full of bare dicks.
A few years ago, military officials received word that enemies were tapping into their live drone video feeds, which they absolutely should not be able to do. And when we say "enemies," we're not talking about high-tech cyber espionage from China. No, the master hackers who jacked into the very brains of our flying murderbots were Iraqi insurgents using a $26 piece of software called SkyGrabber, which is marketed as a great way to "get new movie, best music, and funny pictures for free."
That's because somebody (everybody) forgot to encrypt the goddamn things. No passwords, no protection, no nothing. An insurgent with a laptop could grab the signal and see what our flying scouts could see. As one Air Force official put it: "We noticed a trend when going after these guys; that sometimes they seemed to have better early warning." You know, because they were able to read the minds of our flying remote control spies.
"I see ... wait, let me get my phone. Oh, yes, I see explosions happening at the following coordinates."
It's not like nobody knew it was a risk -- there were reports after the operation in Bosnia years earlier that some people with satellite dish receivers were suddenly getting drone feeds on their TV screens, because the dish they were trying to use to watch Cinemax was catching the unencrypted drone feeds instead.
Four years after being made to look stupid by $26 worth of amateur piracy, the Army had still not encrypted over half of their drones. Meanwhile, if it becomes common for police to use drones on American soil, you have to wonder how long it'll be until YouTube fills up with clips from hijacked feeds. "THIS IS ME RUNNING FROM THE COPS LOL."
A Self-Destruct Sequence Was Activated ... By Accidentally Hitting the Space Bar
The silliest trope we see in sci-fi and action movies has to be the "self-destruct button." The supervillain always has one on his doomsday device, the starship Enterprise had to use theirs like once every other movie, James Bond and Ethan Hunt are always punching one just seconds before the missile destroys the city. It makes no sense -- why would they even build in a self-destruct button at all? Wouldn't people be accidentally hitting it all the time?
Yes. Especially if you can initiate the sequence by hitting the space bar on your keyboard.
"Goddammit, not again."
The MQ-8B Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter, was an amazingly sophisticated piece of technology, at least until its cancellation in 2008, a mere two years after its grand debut. How could something seemingly so incredible fail so fast? Perhaps because pressing a single button, one found on every keyboard ever made, can start the self-destruct sequence.
"Honey, is Chad in there with y- oh dear God, no."
They found this out when the Scout was on a mission and the operator's headset wire pressed down on his computer's space bar. Sure enough, the drone announced that it had initiated its self-destruct sequence. To be fair, in real life, you want this feature on an unmanned vehicle in case the drone is lost or falls into enemy hands. But making it go boom in the middle of preserving freedom tends to defeat its purpose.
Thankfully, the Office of Naval Drone-Building People Guys (their official name) wasn't made up of total boneheads, and the errant keystroke was only the first of several steps needed to actually destroy the Scout (it's unknown if the other keys needed to blow it up were near where the wire was draped across the keyboard). So crisis was averted, although the drone was ultimately deemed too faulty to continue operation. Perhaps the Navy could take the money saved on not building another Scout and buy their sailors some goddamn wireless headsets.
A Faulty GPS Update Shut Down an Entire Defense System
Back in early 2010, the Air Force needed to upgrade their GPS system. And, as we all know, any time spent upgrading software is time spent doing nothing else on the planet. All that clicking of "Next," and accepting of terms and conditions you didn't read, and rebooting can mean upwards of minutes without whatever computer-related activity you happen to be addicted to.
It has to be an even bigger pain in the ass when you're the Air Force and trying to upgrade your own GPS systems. But it's surely a pain in the ass worth doing correctly, since this is how troops know the difference between meeting up with a friendly convoy and stumbling into a hostile stretch of land containing more landmines than dirt.
"Wait, this isn't the desert at all."
The Air Force never checked their current GPS system to make sure it was compatible with the new upgrade they so eagerly downloaded. So of course, it wasn't. And wouldn't you know, the download caused a wacky disruption of their entire defensive system. It's always that one thing you don't do that ends up biting you in your lazy ass.
The faulty update screwed up roughly 10,000 receivers, turning them into utterly useless bricks. Except a brick would have been more useful, since you can chuck one at an enemy's head and then use it to bash their brains in. Despite the Air Force's insistence that it was no big deal, everyone can go home, nothing to see here, a huge chunk of your navigation system suddenly melting into nothingness is quite the big deal. This is especially true in today's military, where virtually everything gets coordinated via GPS.
"I've located the giant field of grass. Request mower backup."
So for the several weeks (at least) that the systems were kaput, an entire generation of soldiers were lost, like a toddler without its parents, or a politician without a teleprompter. If that's not enough, government reports from the year before had accused the Air Force of being way behind with building new satellites, an oversight that could have potentially triggered a massive GPS blackout on its own. As it turns out, satellites weren't the most pressing issue -- the bigger threat was not checking the fine print before hitting "Download Now."
A Patriot Missile Failed Due to Nobody Rebooting It
During the first Gulf War in the 1990s, the Patriot missile was the undisputed badass of missile defense systems. It was credited with stopping about 99 percent of the Iraqi Scud missiles fired at U.S. bases, blowing them out of the air with precise calculations made by the highest quality computer systems around at the time.
Hard to see out of the windshield, though.
Tragically, there's the case of the 1 percent. During the height of the Gulf War, while stationed in Saudi Arabia, a Patriot missile failed to properly intercept an incoming Scud missile. It flew into U.S. barracks, killing 28 soldiers and wounding close to 100 more. With the most advanced technology for its time, how could something like this even come close to happening?
The problem is ludicrous in its simplicity: They left the computer on too long.
"Oooooh, ouch. I don't even start up Saints Row without a quick reboot."
Sure, these days it's normal to leave a PC running 24/7 -- you let it go into sleep mode and just wake it up when it's time to grind your Night Elf again. But even then, after a few days or weeks it starts to slow down as more shit accumulates in the task bar and more alerts turn up insisting that you download an update to your Adobe Reader. So even in 2013, sometimes you just have to turn your computer off and on once to let it get a fresh start.
But in 1991, the state-of-the-art target tracking systems in the Patriot couldn't run for more than a few hours without bogging down. Crews had to reboot them every few hours if they were in a spot where they were supposed to continually scan the skies. But in this case, everybody just forgot. The systems were left running for four straight days. And it wasn't the only time it happened.
Amazingly, this exhausted computer was not off by very much at all: Army technicians determined that the system's calculations had only missed by one-third of a second. However, the Patriot missiles rely on 100 percent precision, since they're pinpointing harbingers of death that are screaming through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour. Being off by a teensy-weensy fraction of a second still meant looking 600 meters in the wrong direction.
"If you start chanting 'airball,' I swear I'll send the next one into your fucking car."
That's not just a football field; that's five and a half football fields. And all because nobody took the time to punch "Reset."
Multiple Militaries Were Crippled by a Common Windows Virus
You only have to deal with a virus once to know you never want to do it again. Whether it poisoned your whole hard drive or simply hijacked your clipboard so that every time you hit "paste" you wound up inserting racial slurs into your Word document, one frustrating weekend of scans and reboots can convince you to never go without antivirus software again.
And there really is no excuse anyway -- effective and constantly updating antivirus programs are available for download at any time, at no cost whatsoever. So you can only imagine what kind of terrifying state-of-the-art virus blockers the military uses. They probably stop the virus, then automatically launch a drone strike on the virus writer's house.
"Shit, here comes that reporter. Tell her that sometimes houses just explode."
Again, when we talk about the military getting crippled by a virus, we're not talking about the super-terrorist cyber attacks from the movies. We're talking about the same crap your mom catches when downloading some free screensavers and toolbars she got from clicking on a banner ad.
"Oh, honey, look! It says you won something!"
For instance, back in 2011, the unmanned drones at a Nevada Air Force base caught themselves a particularly annoying virus called a keylogger. This thing records every keystroke the infected computer makes and reports it back to its master. This is an easy way to get credit card numbers or bank account information or, in this case, classified information about the military's most important weapon systems (specifically, every keystroke the pilots made while operating the drones).
How is this possible? Well, the drones are controlled with off-the-shelf PCs running Microsoft Windows. In this case, they weren't connected to a network, but they still had to install software, and the external drive somebody brought in to upload it happened to be infected.
But that's nothing compared to what happened to the French navy, who were told weeks in advance of a common spamming virus called Conficker. It was so common that we're betting some of you reading this got this virus back when it was infecting Microsoft systems like wildfire. But while many of you saved yourselves because you saw the headlines (and alerts from Microsoft) warning you to update your antivirus, French officials ignored it. And they paid for it.
Isn't that right, Chad?
The virus shut everything down. Crews were ordered to take everything offline and all communication was done via phone and fax. Fighter jets were completely grounded, as flight plans couldn't be downloaded from the computers that couldn't be turned on.
They weren't alone -- less than a month earlier, the British Ministry of Defense also dealt with Conficker, causing their systems to be down for two weeks. So now we know how the aliens in Independence Day must have felt. Only instead of Jeff Goldblum uploading the code from a hijacked ship, they just caught it by randomly surfing shady websites on Earth's Internet.
For more terrible mistakes, check out The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time and 5 Tiny Computer Glitches That Caused Huge Disasters.