Food stamp glitch lesson: IT failures go mainstream

A Xerox routine backup turns into a food stamp disaster in 17 states. IT failures are becoming everyman's business.

Information technology failures — glitches or whatever you want to call them — used to be examined by folks in the business tech press and a few other industry onlookers.

Today, IT failures are becoming everyman's business. First, the glitches illustrated what happens when technology projects aren't quite ready for prime time. And now a routine test of backup systems by Xerox, led to food stamp issues.

Xerox's Electronics Benefits Transfer (EBT) system had a temporary shutdown and it affected people under the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program in 17 states.

In a statement Saturday at 5:27 p.m. EDT, Xerox noted the EBT system was down and it was working a fix. EBT beneficiaries could have activated an emergency voucher system. By 10:26 p.m. EDT Saturday, Xerox said that service was back.

Xerox, which has transformed into a services company via its acquisition of ACS, said:

We appreciate our clients’ patience while we resolved this issue and apologize for any inconvenience. We realize that access to these benefits is important to families in the states we serve. We continue to investigate the cause of the issue so we can take steps to ensure a similar interruption does not re-occur.

That five-hour window led to a few issues. Some food stamp program participants has unlimited spending limits. In Louisiana, CBS News documented the run on food as people tried to buy as much as possible at a Wal-Mart before the limits were put back. Once the EBT issue was resolved, carts were abandoned en masse.

The bottom line is that IT failures used to be a problem with a limited audience. Today, everything is tethered to technology and when the inevitable outage occurs, the reputation risks are going to be much higher going forward.