Everyone with a trolley full of groceries had to leave it and walk out of the store. The lesson is huge — if a company makes a little mistake in its software — getting a few ones and zeros in the wrong places — it can literally leave you hungry.
The failure came hot on the heels of the Commonwealth Bank computer glitch, which left people across Australia with zero balances showing and cut them off from payments. Without us noticing, our whole lives have now been placed in the hands of computer systems that ought to be a lot more reliable than they are.
The Woolworths one was actually minor, because it was remedied quickly. The supermarkets were back up and running within an hour. When you go looking though, you realise there is a broader pattern of failure that is extremely disturbing.
Computer systems are getting bigger and more pervasive, and a single failure can now affect millions of people, cutting them off from essential services.
How would you like to be stranded in a foreign country with a zero in your bank account? Because that could happen very easily.
Fragile computer systems are backing up some of the most important parts of our lives.
And that’s just from the past couple of weeks.
The risks are profound, and as software takes over more tasks in more domains, they are growing bigger.
Major infrastructure we all depend on is at risk from tiny errors. A computer glitch took down the Melbourne train system last year leaving people miles from home.
And in the UK, hospitals were left helpless when a computer glitch made patient records were unavailable.
It is no exaggeration to say lives are at risk from tiny oversights and the experts who know how to prevent these oversights are spread too thin.
“There is a shortage of smart people — especially in the IT world,” says University of Western Australia Centre for Software Practice director David Glance.
“Companies also don’t invest as much as they should do on IT. Then there is human error — think what happened with the census last year.”
But if we focus on mistakes we miss the big risk, says Associate Professor Glance. We should not fear errors by the incompetent nearly as much as deliberate moves by highly competent malicious actors.
“The biggest problem facing the world at present is cybersecurity and I worry about that being able to take down companies and infrastructure with increasing regularity,” Associate Professor Glance says.
Hackers are a massive problem for everyday businesses. But the most powerful hacking is being unleashed on the most powerful targets.
In America, a group called the Shadow Brokers has compromised the US government’s most secret areas, stealing the tools the US uses to spy on other countries, then leaking it onto the web. The Shadow Brokers, who as far as we know, remain at large, taunting the US government by posting on Twitter.
These leaks have provided hackers — both independent and state-run — with yet more powerful tools they can use to hack regular businesses. A key example is the 2017 WannaCry attack, which is based on something the Shadow Brokers released.
WannaCry was a ransomware attack, where victims were forced to pay a ransom to regain access to computer systems. It affected hundreds of thousands of computers across the world at the same time, and cost many millions, even though it was stopped after a few days.
This has happened even though we are just at the beginning of the era of reliance on massive complex computer systems. As our dependence grows, our vulnerability grows too. And some systems we take for granted might be especially vulnerable — like the humble grocery store.
I asked Woolworths if they had thought about this, and they gave this answer: “Woolworths has a range of multi-layered systems and protections in place to guard against cyber threats. For obvious reasons, the detail of these systems is confidential.”
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. As Associate Professor Glance says, “If Woolworths can’t update their point-of-sale system, think how well prepared they are to fend off cybersecurity attacks.”