2 of the Scariest Bugs in Computer History

No code is completely invulnerable. As diligent as developers are, they are bound to miss out some hackable or degradable line of code or some incompatibility with hardware.  Throughout computing history, some bugs have caused far more damage than others. Here are two very different but very devastating bugs that have influenced computer security protocols and even nuclear weapons safety.

The Heartbleed Vulnerability

Vulnerabilities in code are liable to cause all sorts of mayhem if nefarious hackers are able to get their grubby mitts on them. This explains the popularity of third-party code security company like Spectral

Heartbleed was one of the most devastating code vulnerabilities to plague developers in the 21st century. It was a bug in the OpenSSL cryptographic language. It allowed anybody on the internet to read the ‘secrets’ used by communicating applications. ‘Secrets’ in coding can include authentication keys, passwords and tokens. They help applications confirm the identity of other applications they need to link up with. If third parties can find out what these ‘secrets’ are, they can infiltrate applications and manipulate code for their own ends. Luckily, Heartbleed has been patched out of OpenSSL in recent years.  

The Nuclear Early Warning Bug

This is the big daddy: a bug that came terrifyingly close to ending life on earth as we know it. During the cold war, the United States and Soviet Union both operated very complex early warning systems. These systems were designed to give their respective operators an advance warning of a nuclear attack, allowing them to launch their own missiles in response and (hopefully) save some of their civilians and infrastructure. In hindsight, these systems only would have worsened the severity of a nuclear war by ensuring that both superpowers were effectively wiped off the face of the earth. Such was the strange logic of the Mutually Assured Destruction era – or MAD era for short.

Cold War early warning systems were reliant upon early computer chips that were cutting edge at the time. They were, however, prone to failure. A bug in the US early warning system almost led to Armageddon on June 3rd, 1980. At around 2.30am, commanders were woken up to terrifying news: the Soviets had launched a missile attack on the US mainland. Bomber crews were scrambled and spooled their jet engines up on the tarmac. Missile commanders unlocked their launch keys from safes and stood ready. The National Security Agency prepared to tell the president. It was the end of days – or at least it was for an hour or so.

As it turned out, the Soviets had not launched an attack at all. Embarrassingly, a bug in a 46 cent computer chip had almost caused the most devastating accident in the history of humankind. At least it wasn’t as embarrassing as what had happened the year before – when somebody had mistakenly loaded a training tape into the computer that simulated war and almost caused a real nuclear exchange. That’s a wild IT tech story that could have changed history as we know it.

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