5 of the Most Catastrophic Computer Failures in History

©Wikimedia Commons

For me, it’s utterly terrifying to think of what would happen if there was a major computer-related disaster and the entire world’s records were wiped out in one second.

I guess we never really know what dangers lurk out there in the world of cybercrime, hacking, etc., but it’s scary to think about it, considering how much we rely on computers for everything.

Let’s look at five major computer failures in history and what ended up happening.

1. The Dhahran Patriot Missile Interception

Photo Credit: US Army

During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the Patriot Missile became an iconic fixture. The Patriots were able to shoot down other missiles and aircraft.

One Patriot system in Saudi Arabia had its internal clock drift by 0.34 seconds because it had been operational for 100 hours. Israelis had advised the Americans to periodically reboot the system’s computers, but it was not done. The results turned out to be fatal.

On February 25, 1991, Iraqi forces launched a Scud missile. The Patriot system originally detected it but because of the slight time drift, it looked in the wrong place and did not attempt to intercept the Scud. The missile hit American barracks in Saudi Arabia and 28 American soldiers were killed.

2. WannaCry

Photo Credit: Public Domain

A worldwide ransomware cyberattack was launched in May 2017 affecting Windows-based computers. The encrypted data put out by the virus infected over 200,000 computers in 15 countries.

The WannaCry attack demanded ransom from those affected, asking for between $300 and $600 per computer. If people paid the ransom, their data was returned safely. WannaCry also badly infected the UK’s National Health System. It’s estimated that the attack caused $4 billion worldwide, and it is believed that North Korea was to blame.

3. Spectre

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Spectre, discovered in 2018, is a vulnerability present in almost all current computer systems. This is how it works: it tricks a program into accessing memory while actually allowing someone to read data and possibly retrieve sensitive information.

It’s highly likely that Spectre will not disappear for a long time, and it might even be affecting your system right now.


Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On May 5, 2000, millions of people around the world received an email with “ILOVEYOU” in the subject line. There was a file attached to each email called “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs,” and, in classic fashion, millions of people opened the file.

When opened, the virus overwrote files on the computer and sent copies of itself to every address in a person’s Microsoft Outlook contacts, so you can imagine how quickly it spread. The attack ended up costing $15 billion to remove from computer systems after it infected 50 million computers in just ten days.

5. The Boeing 737 MAX

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This one you may have heard of, since it’s been in the news recently.

The Boeing 737 MAX was rushed into production, and, like all planes, it needed to keep its fuel costs as low as possible. But the 737 MAX needed larger engines that could not be mounted on the wings like usual, which meant the engines were moved closer to the body.

Because it would be expensive to retrain pilots to deal with the changes, Boeing used a computerized system called MCAS that automatically pushed the nose of the aircraft down when an excessive angle was detected. They also neglected to inform pilots about the MCAS system.

This technology led to two catastrophic incidents: a Lion Air flight crashed in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed in March 2019 that killed a total of 346 people. The 737-MAX is now grounded worldwide, costing airlines and Boeing millions, if not billions of dollars.