Earlier this week, Amazon Web Services’ S3 hosting went down, causing a widespread internet outage that lasted several hours. As many of us twiddled are thumbs, unable to get work done (or getting way more work done than normal), we wondered: Was this the result of a hack? When our favorite apps and websites returned, would they be completely in Russian?
In fact, it was a simple typo that brought dozens of the web’s most used services to its knees. While debugging part of its billing system, a member of the Amazon S3 team entered a command incorrectly. This accidentally took a larger-than-intended number of servers offline. After that, safely restarting all the services affected by that shutdown took longer than expected.
This isn’t the first time that an innocent typo has wreaked havoc on the digital world—or the real world. During the past few years, we’ve seen several instances where a typo ended up having disastrous effects. For example:
2009: A UK government agency destroyed a 124-year old business
When reporting that a business has gone under, it’s best to triple-check that the name is correct. That’s exactly what didn’t happen to Taylor & Sons Ltd. in 2009. Companies House, basically the registrar for companies in the U.K., accidentally reported that the 250-person company had folded. In fact, Taylor & Sons Ltd. was fine—Taylor & Son Ltd. had gone under. Unfortunately, the error caused Taylor & Sons to lose orders, credit, and ultimately fold in 2014. The company successfully sued over the incident, though.
2013: Israeli stock crash
A clerk at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange caused a small crash in the Israeli stock market thanks to a typo. Before the index was halted, one of Israel’s biggest investment firms lost close to 100 percent of its market value. What happened: The clerk typed in the wrong number while trying to sell shares of another company. “It’s not the first time that this has happened,” a spokesperson told CNBC. A typing error of this scale apparently happens every few months (or at least it did four years ago).
2015: A plane landed in the wrong country
In March 2015, an AirAsia flight with 212 passengers on board landed in Melbourne, Australia, instead of Malaysia. The flight originated in Sydney, Australia, but the pilot entered the wrong coordinates before the flight began. This caused the plane to think it was in Cape Town, South Africa. (Yeah, that’s a big oops.) In a report detailed by Australia’s aviation agency, the pilot accidentally typed in 15° 19.8’ east (“01519.8”) as the longitude instead of 151° 9.8’ east as the longitude (“15109.8”). Because the flight crew wasn’t exactly sure what the issue was, when the plane headed off in the wrong direction after takeoff, the pilot decided the best course of action was just to land as quickly as possible. It’s unclear how long it took for the passengers to actually reach Malaysia.
2016: Bank heist foiled
This typo was good news for the Bangladesh central bank and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, but bad news for some tech savvy bank robbers. After stealing the Bangladesh Bank’s systems payment transfer credentials, thieves stole $81 billion. This was money that was broken up and transferred to the Philippines over four transfer requests. A typo halted the heist’s fifth transfer request to a Sri Lankan nonprofit. The hackers misspelled the name of the NGO, the Shalika Foundation, as the Shalika “Fandation.” The routing bank (Deutsche Bank) then requested clarification from the Bangladesh bank, and officials killed the transaction, ending the thieves’ payday.
2016: The Hillary Clinton email scandal
We could have a different president in the White House if it weren’t for a typo from a Clinton campaign aid. Clinton campaign chair John Podesta received an odd looking warning email including a link for him to change his password. To check its veracity, Podesta’s aid forwarded the email to another staff member, Charles Delavan, who was a computer technician. The technician replied that it was “a legitimate email” and that Podesta should “change his password immediately.” Delavan later said he meant to type the word “illegitimate” (but perhaps meant that it was “a legitimate attack,” not a “legitimate email”). Regardless, Podesta ended up clicking the link, and hackers infiltrated his email. The rest is, well, where we are now.