O2 outage proves the weakest link in the digital revolution is fallibly human

So it turns out the O2 mobile network failure that took out data access for some 30 million people this week, was caused by an expired software certificate – no great conspiracy, no programming error, no undiscovered bug, no malicious interference, but one of the most basic systems administration mistakes you can imagine. Someone somewhere forgot to renew a certificate.

As a wise voice once said, there’s no patch for stupidity. And herein lies the great unspoken conundrum at the heart of the digital revolution. Computers go wrong. Why? Because they’re designed, manufactured, programmed, configured, secured and operated by the most fallible, unpredictable and unreliable resource in the technology world – people.

Of course, it’s those same people who every day ensure that the IT systems supporting every company and government in the world work mostly as intended, who keep the internet running and protect the vast majority of our personal data. That’s because people are pretty good at computers these days. But we’ll never be perfect.

The job of running IT systems is becoming increasingly abstracted from the technology – virtualisation, cloud, containers, serverless, orchestration, all these trends aim to remove that human fallibility from everyday tasks. Not forgetting that it still takes another human somewhere to make those technologies work in the first place.

Much as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are replacing or augmenting corporate jobs, so the IT department will see further dramatic change as more of its responsibilities are taken over by software robots. Of course, those software robots were created and programmed by humans too. And they aren’t exactly perfect – as the Amazon workers in a New Jersey warehouse found out this week, when a robot accidentally punctured a can of bear repellent, sending 24 staff to hospital.

There is, correctly, much debate about ethics in AI and technology, not least the need to prevent human bias from becoming too infused in the algorithms they rely on. People outside IT are taking more of an interest in the workings of IT than ever before. It’s fair to assume those non-IT types are pretty fallible too.

When O2 went down, there was much humour taken from the site of people trying to consult paper maps to find their way around, and attempted insights from those who found a whole new world beyond the smartphone they’d been glued to until then. The outage was a small reminder of how reliant most of us have become on technology.

For all the great advances of recent decades, it’s going to be a long time before we no longer see headlines screaming “outage”. Whether through malice or simple error, human fallibility is a part of our digital future too.

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