As computer automation plays an ever increasing role in our daily lives, the cost to society related to malware infection has become extraordinarily high. In 2006, Computer Economics Inc. estimated that adware, spyware, and virus infection cost world business an estimated $13.3 billion. However, a recent investigation into a 2008 airliner crash may prove that the cost has crossed a disturbing, unacceptable new threshold.
An independent investigation into the causes of the August 20, 2008 crash of Spanair flight JK 5022 has indicated that a malware infection in the airline’s mainframe computer may have been a contributing factor to the disaster that killed 158 people. The Spanish Daily El Pais has reported that an internal Spanair memo dated the day of the crash indicates that a mainframe computer used for analysis of trouble tickets and technical data was infected with trojan viruses and was inoperable.
The doomed airliner was reported as having problems twice on the day before the crash. Had the mainframe been operating normally, the computer would have noted the problems and prompted technicians to ground the plane. However, no such warning was given, and the plane was allowed to take off, resulting in the crash a few seconds later.
An initial government report on the crash indicated that the plane crashed due to retracted flaps and slats, which are normally extended for take off. An alarm should have sounded in the cabin to alert the pilots to the condition, but the alarm failed to operate. The retracted flaps and slats should have been noted by both inspection by the pilots (human error) and the internal alarm (a malfunction in the plane’s control systems). While human error played a role in the tragedy, the failure of the airline’s mainframe to prompt technicians to ground the plane cannot be disputed.
With so much of daily life dependent on computers, malware has become a more than an economic cost. It is now a serious risk to safety and life itself. This very well may be the first documented instance of malware being responsible for loss of human life. Has malware become enough of a threat to be considered terrorism? Should the authors of the trojan viruses found on the airline’s mainframe be charged with manslaughter? The magnitude of malware’s effect of society has gone far beyond being a nuisance or an economic cost for business. It is a criminal act on par with murder, and perhaps the creation of it should be prosecuted as such.
Computer Economics, Annual Worldwide Economic Damages from Malware Exceed $13 Billion
Jose Antonio Hernandez, El ordenador de Spanair que anotaba los fallos en los aviones tenía virus El Pais, 8/24/2010.