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US Gov has multiple mission-critical IT failures

Editorial Staff

In the past few days, the US Immigration and Customs has had the third major IT failure in two years. When you read of a "US government shut-down," this is not what one expects. It's not the only US Government department to go dark. And it carries lessons for all of those rushing to bring NewTech online before it is proven.

In January 2018, it was reported that several airports across the USA suffered a repeat of a computer failure a year earlier. The Customs and Border Protection (immigration) computers stopped working.

In January this year, the US government entirely failed to prepare for the rush for so-called H-2B visas for temporary, non-agricultural workers and, as the application period opened at midnight on 1 January, it crashed under the weight.of 33,000 applications for visas to start on 1 April. It was the fault of iCERT's operators, The Department of Labor's (sic) Office of Foreign Labor (sic) Certification had issued a statement, on 27 December, saying that the 1 January was a hard date and that any applications before that date would be automatically rejected and would have to be resubmitted.

In August this year, a total failure of the US customs IT system at airports lasted two hours. No one could get in or out until they had been "manually processed." Reports say that the original problem began at the Federal Inspection Services computer. Passengers arriving from outside the USA found the immigration desks had no access to computerised records and had resorted to that old standby, the human interface. For travellers flying with BA, it was the second major failure in a week when the airline's own systems broke down.

In each case, Customs and Border Protection said that there was no suspicious reason behind the failures.

Last weekend, the on-line not-exactly-a-visa system, ESTA, broke down. The ESTA site had been "relaunched" and then it sank. ESTA is the pre-clearance system for those who are entitled to what might be termed a "visa-light" right to enter the USA for tourism purposes. The USA calls it "visa-free" but it's more akin to the proposed arrangement between the UK and the EU after Brexit in that those who don't need a "visa" need an entry document of sorts. That includes holders of 39 passports including the UK. The USA calls it a form of "pre-screening" and it takes the place of questioning at the arrival airport before entry is granted. Moreover, the "update" took place over the weekend when there were no staff at missions to assist passengers who were making last minute applications, as is very common. In the absence of the ESTA documents, airlines will not allow passengers to board because, if they are turned back on arrival, the airline bears the cost of returning them to their point of departure. US Customs and Border Protection reported blamed the victims saying that the department " has for many years recommended that prospective travellers complete the online Esta form at least 72 hours in advance of travel to ensure sufficient time for processing."

They should expect this. After all, in June 2015, the New York Times reported "The United States has been unable to issue visas to travellers around the world for two weeks because of a computer hardware failure that remains unresolved, State Department officials said Monday." That, "officials" said, was not the same software problems that caused a system-wide crash in 2014. The page at the travel.state.gov website (http://travel.state.gov/conten...) linked from the NYT article has been removed. The back up system failed because it had corrupted data, the NYT reported.

The lesson across industry is this: if something with the resources of the US Government can't get its mission critical systems right, how dangerous is it to rush into untested, or inadequately tested, software in e.g. the financial and healthcare sectors? Those pushing for ever-more and ever more rapid adoption of FinTech and RegTech must take not of the propensity to fail.

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