Everyone seems to be eager, perhaps too eager, to move on from the nuclear attack false alarm in Hawaii over the weekend. It is lucky that nothing worse happened. Some people on the scene reported that drivers were going over 100 miles an hour trying to get to safety. Fortunately, there seem to be no reports of traffic deaths or similarly, heart attacks from panic or over-exertion to get to a less exposed spot.
Some media outlets complained that Trump was out golfing during this scare and so missed it entirely. They happen to be many of the same media outlets that worry about Trump being a hothead who might launch an nuclear attack of pique. Funny that they aren’t similarly concerned that he or the high command might take an aggressive action based on misinformation.
And before you contend that the false alarm was contained to the civilian alert system, consider what might have happened had the same mistake taken place on the mainland, say in California. The national media would have picked up on and amplified the alert quickly. That would have created more panic and pressure to Do Something. Now as with Hawaii, the odds still favor that someone would have gone to verify the report before taking a step, but more people involved and more moving parts increases the odds of screw-ups.
What makes this case particularly disconcerting wasn’t simply that it was the result of human error, but design-enabled human error. Lambert, who has worked in a lot of software-related jobs, and in particular has done both UX and UI designing, was particularly exercised that a botch of this sort occurred. One possibility is that the poor design resulted from lousy specs, and Hawaii may therefore not be the only place with problems of this sort.
From IT Pro (hat tip Richard Smith):
A poorly-designed user interface was reportedly behind the false alarm regarding an incoming missile that sent Hawaiian residents into a panic over the weekend….
The alert was supposed to have been an internal test of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s (HEMA’s) missile alert system, conducted semi-regularly since tensions between the US and North Korea began escalating last year. According to The Washington Post, an employee mistakenly selected the wrong option from a drop-down list, issuing a genuine missile alert to the public instead of a dummy alert to HEMA staff.
The two options were labelled almost identically (‘test missile alert’ and ‘missile alert’) and placed one after another, while the only safeguard to prevent accidental alert launches was a single confirmation prompt.
The incident has drawn criticism from some experts, who say that such an important system should not be so open to human error.
“Even though the menu option still required confirmation that the user really wanted to send an alert, that wasn’t enough, on this occasion, to prevent the worker from robotically clicking onwards,” explained security expert Graham Cluley.
“There was an ‘are you sure?’ message, but the user clicked it anyway. Clearly the ‘are you sure?’ last-chance-saloon wasn’t worded carefully enough, or didn’t stand out sufficiently from the regular working of the interface, to make the worker think twice.”
And to add insult to injury, the alert cancellation system had better controls than the “sent the ‘end is nigh message’ system did:
Compounding the problem was the fact that it took more than half an hour for HEMA to send out a follow-up message after the first alert to reassure people that it was an error. Sending the retraction required an elevated level of permissions, and had to go through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for approval.
The article breezily states that this glitch has been fixed, so that a second person has to sign off on sending an alarm, while cancelling them will be easier. But this report comes amid a seemingly unending level of reports of software and hardware screw-ups. For instance, Finnish researchers have found yet another Intel security hole, with the saving grace that this one affects only laptops.
So the end of the world may not come about due to sea level rises or farmland turning into desert or too many bees dying or plastic killing the oceans. Maybe civilization will collapse under the weight of accumulated software bugs.