The technological error that explains how an official activated a ballistic missile alert that sparked panic in Hawaii

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A short but forceful message shook the people of Hawaii this weekend.

“Threat of ballistic missile launch for Hawaii, seek refuge immediately, this is not a simulacrum”, said the message that unleashed the chaos.

It was a notification that was sent on Saturday morning – at 08:07 (18:07 GMT) – to the mobile phone of the nearly one and a half million residents of the US archipelago. The announcement was also distributed through state radio and television.

“Stay in a covered place! … If you drive, move cautiously to the side of the road, look for shelter in a building and lie on the floor.” We will report when the threat is over.This is not a test!“, was heard on the radio.

But it turned out that it was .

Thirty-eight minutes later, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (EMA) said it had been a false alarm .

However, the streets of Honolulu and other parts of the archipelago had already panicked , the AFP news agency reported. According to the CNBC news channel, the alert “momentarily put the receivers in a state of hysteria,” and many ran for refuge.

Man using cell phone in the streets of Hawaii.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption The residents of the archipelago not only received text messages on their cell phones, but also alerts through television and radio. (Photo: Eugene Tanner / Getty Images)

At the time of the incident, there were still no answers to what happened .

The senator of Hawaii, Brian Schatz, hastened to apologize that same day through Twitter and promised to take action.

The next day, Ajit Pai, president of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US media regulator, called the error “unacceptable” and opened an investigation.

Now there are answers: the failure was human . An error by an employee caused the disaster.

But how fragile is the system used and how did technology influence panic?

Human failure

The worker responsible for the error, a civil defense official whose identity has not been revealed, was ” temporarily dismissed ,” an EMA spokesman said.

State officials said later that the employee was doing a routine test during a shift change, and wrongly hit the button that triggers the alert in case of a real threat.

nuclear button

Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image

Image captionThe employee who activated the button to activate the alarm was “temporarily fired,” state officials explained.

The employee who caused the ruling “feels bad, he did not do it on purpose,” Vern Miyagi, who works as a supervisor at the agency, told a news conference.

Until now, it was one s or the employee who executed the process, but from now on will require two people to sign the issuance of an alert.

However, the error was not only human.

..and technological failure

The FCC investigation revealed that the system used by the Hawaiian government “lacks reasonable guarantees or established process controls to prevent the transmission of a false alarm.”

And the interface that the system uses-the elements of the screen that allow the user to send commands to a program or website-was partly to blame.

According to an EMA spokesperson, human failure occurred when “clicking” in the wrong place.

The newspaper The Washington Post explains how it was: “From a drop – down menu in a computer program (the employee who caused the error) saw two options. ‘Test missile warning’ and ‘Missile Warning’ was supposed that he was choose the first, as much of the world knows now, he chose the second, a start of a real-life missile alert. “

Some specialists explain that to avoid it another command could have been activated: a confirmation request asking the user ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ .

A sign warns that "there is no threat" on Oahu, Hawáis after a false alarm was sent.
Copyright of the REUTERS image
Image caption The authorities were criticized for taking 38 minutes to report the error, but some analysts also criticize the system that was used. (Photo: Instagram / @ SIGHPOUTSHRUG via Reuters).

In addition, the system did not allow the option to cancel the alarm.

An EMA spokesman said that the problem was solved, but confirmed that at the time there was no immediate option to cancel the issuance of the alert.

According to the cybersecurity analyst Graham Cluley, the program had “a terrible user interface design” .

“We should remember that or what is human to make mistakes,” he added.

“Each and every one of us is wrong every day, the only difference is that most of us do not appear in the international headlines, we should analyze what could have been done to make a human error less likely.”

The anti-nuclear warning system now used in Hawaii is from the Cold War era and was recently reactivated in response to threats of a possible attack by North Korea.

Alaska and Hawaii are the two regions of the United States closer to the Asian country.

The sirens had been inactive for more than 25 years.

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