Friday, July 13, 2012

Cracks, hacks & glitches raise Olympic concerns

A series of technology failures this week has left hundreds of thousands without cellular service on their mobile phones, millions unable to watch TV programmes online and some worried about their email security.

The reasons behind the catalogue of technical problems varied, but the incidents highlighted people's reliance on technology and how simple glitches or a few devious hackers can create inconvenience for millions. The problems have also raised concerns over the Olympics, which is just a fortnight away.

Mobile network crash

On Wednesday afternoon hundreds of thousands of O2 customers found they were unable to make calls, send texts or access the Internet from their mobile founds.

Problems started at around 13:00 but continued for more than 24 hours, with O2 being unable to offer any clear explanation as to the reason for the system failures nor how many of its 23 million users were affected [BBC].

BBC iPlayer down

While many thousands took to Twitter to air their grievances, others might have decided to relieve the stress of being out of touch by settling down in front of the laptop of Internet connected TV and catch up on the past week's programmes.

However another ghost in the machine had rendered the BBC's iPlayer service inaccessible [BBC]. The broadcaster admitted the site was hit by a "major technical issue" but declined to provide further details [Telegraph].

Fallout from cellular outage

The outage was not too serious and the service was resumed within an hour or two for most users. But the cellular disruption continued for a second day though the company said they were working on a solution as quickly as possible [BBC].

By late Thursday O2 said their network was back in operation [BBCChannel 4 News] but the fallout from the crash was significant. Not only were many customers, reliant on their service for business, unable to make calls, it also left some people physically stranded. Anyone attempting to hire a Boris bike to cycle across London found themselves locked out because of the glitch since the system uses O2 servers [Guardian].

Some Tesco Mobile customers, who also use the O2 system, also lost services. O2, which is owned by Spain's Telefonica, said that "the problem was due to a fault with one of our network systems, which meant some mobile phone numbers were not registering correctly on our network." [D Mail]

Customer anger

But the excuses and apologies were not good enough for many of its 23 million customers. Some complained on Twitter and expressed their frustrations at being disconnected. One mother-to-be Leanna May wrote, "I can't bear this any longer! THREE @o2 contracts, NONE WORK. And I'm at home pregnant in agony! Great, who should I call? No one!"

The network failure also affected the monitoring of offenders wearing security tags. The Ministry of Justice said that around 250 offenders monitored by security firm G4S were affected, though both the ministry and G4S insisted that disruption was "minimal" and that public safety was not compromised.

Olympic concerns

The system crash came only hours after Derek McManus, from O2, told BBC News that the company was confident of providing a robust and efficient service during the Olympic Games. "As an industry, we have been planning for over two years, and O2 alone has invested £50 million in London 2012 - increasing capacity on the current network and building new temporary sites across the country," McManus said.

This week's failure is particularly disquieting. BT, formerly British Telecom, no longer has a mobile network and has teamed up with other network providers to provide cellular connectivity inside the Olympic Park. BT has partnered with Telefonica, operating in the UK under the name O2, and other mobile network providers, to create the Joint Operators Olympic Group (Joog).

JOOG, consisting Vodafone, O2, EE, 3, MBNL, BT, Ericsson and Airwave, have joined forces to provide cellular connectivity across the 2.5 km square site. However, BT with Cisco and O2, are primarily responsible for providing the extensive WiFi network [Techworld]. Any failure, such as that seen over the past few days will be both embarrassing and costly for the companies involved and for Britain as a brand.

Other cracks

There were other technical issues concerning Internet users this week after hackers posted passwords belonging to Yahoo users online. The security breach is not only embarrassing for the company, but a major concern for holders of other accounts according to Reuters. The breach is said to have exposed more than 450,000 passwords, however Yahoo claim many were out of date and that only a small minority of individuals might be compromised [BBC]. Such assurances are unlikely to allay fears amongst users. After the recent debarque concerning the glitch which affected millions of customers of Natwest, RBS and Ulster bank, there will be many wondering how safe technology really is.

Physical cracks

The cracks appearing in Britain's infrastructure have even been found in its roads. A bridge on the M4 had to be closed for a week after engineers spotted weaknesses in the construction [BBC]. While that has reopened, there are still big concerns about how the country will cope when the Olympics begin in two week's time.

With delays expected at Heathrow airport, a failing road network, a rocky mobile system and concerns over security have thrown a blanket of doubt and concern over the 2012 Games.

Of course, one could dismiss all these glitches and concerns as media hype and paranoia. Britain is a country that likes to winge, whine and poke holes. If one was particularly pessimistic, today being Friday 13th could bring more woe.

Whatever the outcome of the coming week's events, there will be much written about it, both good and bad.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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