The United States was rocked with three mysterious and disturbing computer outages Wednesday: a United Airlines system which sent air travel into chaos, the trading systems of the New York Stock Exchange, and the website of the Wall Street Journal which at that very minute was reporting the story.
“These are very large, complex systems, that unfortunately sometimes break,” says Peter Tapling, CEO of the Chicago-based cybersecurity firm Authentify, who said while a coordinated cyberattack would be possible, such an event would be unprecedented in internet history.
“It would take essentially three different attack vectors being developed, and then the parties developing those attack vectors deciding that on the same day they’re going to take that attack and apply it some victim,” he said. “So is that possible? Yes. But that would indicate a level of coordination we haven’t seen before.”
The NYSE outage occurred just after 10:30 Chicago time, even as United was scrambling to get its schedule returned to normal after an early morning outage which created chaos at airports across the United States.
“We started to see some concerns about the way trading was occurring said stock exchange president Tom Farley. “Customers weren’t getting all the messages that you would otherwise expect.”
The exchange halted trading, and remained shut down for over three and a half hours, resuming operations at 2:10 Chicago time. Other markets across the United States were not affected.
“It appears that today we had system malfunctions at United, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Wall Street Journal,” said Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson. “It appears from what we know at this stage that the malfunctions at United and the Stock Exchange were not the result of any nefarious actor.”
On even a normal day, the stock market can take off on dizzying climbs and plunges, prompted by little more than rumor. While the Dow Jones Industrial average closed down only 261 points, many traders admitted high anxiety.
“When they announced that trading had been halted, people didn’t know at first if it was a cyberattack or hacking from a foreign country,” trader Adrian Deluca said outside the Chicago Board of Trade. “So there was tension, but it quickly dissipated when they said it was technical difficulties.”
At the stock exchange, at least 700,000 trades were stopped in their tracks. But the NYSE insisted only technical problems were to blame.
But tensions were heightened when an overnight tweet was discovered from the anti-Wall Street group Anonymous.
“Wonder if tomorrow is going to be bad for Wall Street?” they posted late Tuesday night. “We can only hope.”
Tapling, the security expert, notes world markets were being rocked at that very minute by turbulent financial news from Greece and China. A more likely explanation, he says, than a coordinated attack.
“China, of course, is a very large economy,” he said. “It affects the world economy. So the combinations of China, what’s going on in Greece, could have just been an economic statement by Anonymous.”