Software bug affects USA Customs and Border Protection during holiday season

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has confirmed that a recent software update caused a four-hour Customs computer outage on the 3rd of January, which led to massive lines across US airports during the busy holiday period.

The glitch, which caused the systems shut down, was caused by changes the agency made on the 28th of December to software used to process travellers.

“At this time, there is no indication the service disruption was malicious in nature,” the CBP said in a statement.

Travellers screened manually

Thousands of travellers waiting in long lines at major airports around the country were eventually processed, as Customs officers accessed records through backup systems.

CBP said the outage didn’t disrupt database checks or compromise national security. “During the technology disruption, CBP had access to national security-related databases and all travellers were screened according to security standards,” the agency said in a statement.

Flight disruptions and committee questions

The long processing delays meant that a number of travellers missed connections and in some cases were forced to sleep at airports.

“We were concerned about the extensive delays that occurred…when a large number of our international customers had to be rebooked on later flights”, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines.

The ramifications extended beyond the airport walls, as Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote to CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske demanding a full clarification about the root cause of the outage.

“We’ve got to figure out why this happened and how we’re going to prevent outages in the future,” wrote Nelson, who serves on the committee overseeing aviation.

The Senator also expressed concern about a comparable CBP outage in October 2015, when another software bug slowed down international arrivals for over an hour.

Antiquated federal computer systems

US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said the recent outage was not surprising, considering the out-of-date systems used at the nation’s borders.

“Technology at these facilities is out-dated to cope with existing travel volume, let alone the increased traffic we hope and expect to see at our gateway airports in years to come,” he said.

Poor infrastructure costs the USA money, he added.

“The US customs and entry process is already notorious for dissuading long-haul visitors from dealing with the hassle of coming here, and lost inbound travellers means lost export dollars at a time when our economy can ill afford that,” Dow said.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from last May found that in general, federal computer systems are “becoming increasingly obsolete,” using antiquated programming and equipment. One shocking example highlighted was the use of floppy disks at the Defense Department.

The report also highlighted that despite systems in need of upgrades, US government spending on modernising and enhancing IT investments has declined US$7.3 billion from 2010 through 2017.

Edited from sources by Cecilia Rehn.

The Register