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Six clicks: Scariest government tech flops

You may think you know how scary government can get, but you ain't seen nothin' yet!
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1 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Scariest government tech flops

Combine the words "government" and "flops" and the sky is the limit. In this Six Clicks, the challenge was to present just six government mistakes. Fortunately, adding the word "tech" to the mix narrows things down a bit, and allows us to ignore Congress and many of the uber-political hot-buttons everyone is ranting about these days.

So, leave your Obamacare rant on the table. We're taking this to a whole new level. Rather than just stopping at infuriating or baffling, we're going straight to horrific and terrifying.

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2 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Space shuttle disasters

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic ocean, 73 seconds after launch. All on board were killed. The investigation eventually determined an "O" ring failed, but the real culprit was poor communication and management that should never have been allowed the flight to launch that day.

After years attempting to recover from the grief and shame of Challenger, the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003 exploded over Texas on re-entry. The problem was caused initially after take-off, when 82 seconds after launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off and hit Columbia's wing.

What's heartbreaking about the Columbia disaster is that NASA engineers requested satellite photos to be taken of the craft in orbit, but senior officials refused the request. Had those photos been taken, it's possible the damage would have been seen and those seven brave crew members might have survived.

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3 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Sometimes it takes a team effort to do something incredibly bad. In this case, it took terrible management on the part of BP, combined with terrible management on the part of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, to cause the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April of 2010.

As it turns out, the spill might have been prevented if proper regulations had been put into place. Unfortunately, a little known federal agency, the Minerals Management Service, had a tendency to adopt regulations proposed by the oil drilling industry and not by disinterested experts and scientists. According to a report by the Washington Post, the spill dumped 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and damaged 16,000 miles of shore line.

Oil is still washing up on our beaches to this day.

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4 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Hanging chads: 2000 presidential vote

How is it possible that the future of the free world could revolve around something as low-tech as torn scraps of paper no bigger than a teenager's pimple? And yet, back in 2000, the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to hanging chads.

It may seem like the dark ages back then. After all, it was before Facebook, and we were all still using Windows 98 to access the Internet. But computers capable of counting were around back then, and could have helped. Instead, the Palm Beach County ballots were so poorly designed that the voters were almost intentionally confused about who they were voting for.

Think that adding tech to the equation will help? If you want to be scared, watch this interview I did with an Argonne Labs expert who shows how voting machine tech is still very vulnerable.

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5 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

NSA and Snowden

No discussion of government tech flops can skip over the "Big Kahuna" of security breaches: the Edward Snowden NSA fiasco. The Snowden breach dwarfs poor little Chelsea Manning, who just stole a few DVDs worth of State Department data in a sad quest for respect.

Oh, no. Somehow, a mid-level IT contractor working for an outside firm dug his way inside of a wide variety of NSA servers and absconded with a tremendous amount of damning material. While the NSA practices themselves may actually have been perfectly legal, the way they were presented in the documents Snowden stole and sent on to members of the foreign press puts Snowden's breach in a class all its own.

It shouldn't have happened and it didn't need to. That's why we have security protocols.

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6 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Lost nukes

There are so many topics to discuss when looking at government failure, but when you want to get truly scared, one of the best is knowing that there's probably a missing nuclear bomb sitting off the coast of Georgia. Or how about the time the government accidentally dropped a nuke on South Carolina?

Fortunately, these mistakes haven't been made recently (that we know of), but back on February 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber crashed into an F-86 above Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. The bomber was carrying a 7,600 pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb, which it jettisoned to prevent it from exploding. Yeah, so here's the thing. The bomb has never been found.

While we're in 1958 and discussing B-47s, there's another story almost as scary. On March 11, 1958, a B-47 was leaving Savannah on its way to England for some exercises. Somehow, a crewman was climbing on a Mark 6 nuclear bomb and ... wait for it ... kicked it loose. It fell on Mars Bluff, South Carolina, blew up, creating a 70-foot wide, 30-foot deep crater, and destroying a home. Fortunately, the nuclear payload itself didn't blow up. The crater was caused by the detonator bomb, not the nuke.

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7 of 7 David Gewirtz/ZDNet

Francis Gary Powers U-2 crash

While we're on the subject of scary, let's talk about a mistake that prolonged the Cold War, led to what was almost total nuclear destruction, embarrassed our nation, and otherwise sucked for the good guys.

On May 1, 1960, a CIA pilot by the name of Francis Gary Powers was shot down flying over Sverdlovsk Oblast in what was then the Soviet Union.

At the time, Stalin's favorite clown — Nikita Khrushchev — had assumed leadership of the nation. He was not the most respected of leaders, but was pursuing a more progressive relationship with America. In fact, the leaders had agreed to a summit, where President Eisenhower would go to Russia and meet with Khrushchev.

The problem is, Khrushchev was having difficulty with the more hard-line members of the Politburu. Until May 1, 1960, Khrushchev was able to stand his ground and continue to explore better relations with the West. But then a Soviet spotter base noticed an unauthorized airborne object flying very, very high over Sverdlovsk Oblast. Against pretty high odds, the S-75 Dvina missile fired at Powers' U-2 hit, bringing the craft down.

The U.S. government at first denied the overflight, but when the Soviets were able to produce Powers, the denials were no longer viable.

Khrushchev no longer stood a chance as a peacemaker, but as a fiery anti-West politician, he could hold onto his power. So he seized on the Powers incident to remake himself into a hawk, later famously engaging in the Cuban Missile Crisis with President Kennedy and nearly bringing the world to nuclear war.

The U-2 was supposed to be undetectable. Instead, it probably extended the Cold War by at least a decade.

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