Software Bug Releases Thousands of US Prisoners Early

Most software has bugs, sometimes small, sometimes large, but very rare is the bug that exists for 13 years and has consequences as serious as causing over 3,200 prisoners in the US to be released early. The bug in question existed in the system that Washington state used to calculate sentence reductions in good behavior, resulting in incorrect reductions in the sentence reductions.

The bug was introduced back in 2002, as part of an update to make the system conform to a new court ruling regarding the application of good behavior credits. The most disturbing part is that the bug was discovered in 2012, and the Washington Department of Corrections (DoC) made aware of it by the family of a victim which discovered the offender was getting out of jail early. It remained relatively ignored at the time until a new boss of IT for the DoC realized the true severity of the issue. At a press conference, Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor stated, “That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening.”

Mr. Inslee ordered the software fixed as soon as possible, with an update to the system that fixes the bug due to be applied by the 7th of January. Until the update is in place, the DoC have been ordered to check manually whether a prisoner should be released before doing so.

An analysis shows that the average amount of time that prisoners with miscalculated sentences got released early was 49 days. There were outliers, however, with one prisoner having had 600 days cut from his sentence. Those prisoners who were released early would have to return to prison to see out the correct remainder of their sentence, even those who have been released for a considerable period. Five prisoners have already been returned to jails, with state police working to see that all those who need to return to their cells do so.

As the world move to become more and more reliant on digital systems, it is shocking that a mistake of this calibre can be allowed to happen, especially over such a long period. Mistakes like this bring into question whether we can yet truly rely on electronic systems for such important tasks, and it is fortunate that the prisons have a way to manually assure the duration of sentences, else the error could have been uncorrectable. It was unconfirmed whether any prisoners released early had committed crimes, but it is concerning that for the last 12 years, criminals who had not seen out their full sentence could have been walking the streets of Washington.

Airbus A400M Software Update Caused Crash

Investigators for the Airbus A400M crash have narrowed down the cause of the software configuration error that led to the crash. According to sources speaking to Reuters, the most likely scenario is that critical software data was wiped from three of the engines during a software upgrade.

During a software upgrade for the engines, data pertaining to the engines, called “torque calibration parameters” were inadvertently wiped. Airbus had known about the potential issue that a software installation could wipe critical data. However, the risk was deemed low and Airbus simply implemented more checks. Unfortunately, in this case, the extra checks failed to discover the problem until it was too late.

Once in flight, a safety check by software would also determine if the engines had any problem. However, this check was only meant to stop faulty engines from causing damage, and to shut down the engines if needed. In this case, the engineers had never envisioned that 3 engines would have to be shut down and the critical loss of power eventually caused the crash.

The cause of the wipe has been identified as the Airbus software used to conduct the installation. Airbus has since warned its customers to cease using the faulty software. With even Boeing finding critical software bugs, one wonders how much care is being taken to software stability and if we can ever trust a windowless cockpit.

Thank you Reuters for the information.

Airbus A400M Disaster Blamed on Faulty Software Configuration

As software continues to grow more complex, the chance for critical errors to emerge increases. Airbus has found out the hard way after a Spanish A400M suffered a fatal crash just last month. Investigators have determined that a software configuration error for the engines led to nearly full engine failure, leading up to the crash.

Airbus was able to determine from the flight data recorder that the plane had not suffered any physical malfunction. Rather, software controlling the fuel supply erroneously adjusted the fuel tank trim due to faulty software configuration. Starved of fuel, the engines shut down, causing the plane to eventually crash. The software fault was not inherent to the code in the engine control unit but was due to it’s erroneous configuration settings.

While fly by wire has become very common in the plane industry, the continued reliance on software raises some concern. Checking for issues in software can be more complex than discovering and diagnosing physical problems with planes. Boeing, Airbus’s main competition,  recently discovered a serious software bug that could have led to crashes due to bad software, also relating to power and engines. It’s important for firms to take as much care to make secure and reliable software as it is for ensuring the physical integrity of the plane. These issues are sure to crop up more and before I get on a 100% software reliant plane with a windowless cockpit, that software better be free of errors and configured properly.

Boeing 787 Software Bug Causes Catastrophic Failure

Boeing can’t seem to get away from bad 787 issues. Coming after a number of battery issues and fires, Boeing’s latest 787 Dreamliner has been issued a new airworthiness directive by the FAA to all operating airlines. Again related to power, a software bug can cause a catastrophic power failure, leading to loss of control.

In simulator tests, Boeing discovered that after staying on for 248 days, the plane suffered from a bug causing a full power loss. Due to an integer overflow, all 4 AC generator control units will simultaneously go into failsafe mode and cease operating. This causes the plane to lose all AC electrical power and potentially cause loss of control as well. This software bug also appears no matter what the state of flight is, meaning it could happen on the ground, during takeoff and landing or in the air as long as 248 days are hit. There are some suggestions that it’s related to a 32bit integer overflow after the generator control units have been on for over 231 centiseconds.

While the issue has been present, no plane so far has stayed on for more than 8 months (248 days). Luckily, Boeing was able to discover the issue on its simulators before a real plane was lost, averting a real disaster. While not all software bugs are easy to handle or fix, this is one of those few cases, where turning it on and off just might do the trick.