How a poor user interface design caused the Hawaii missile scare

Experts slam emergency alert system's lack of safeguards, after worker selects wrong drop-down option

A poorly-designed user interface was reportedly behind the false alarm regarding an incoming missile that sent Hawaiian residents into a panic over the weekend.

People in the US state received a notification on their smartphones on Saturday warning of an imminent ballistic missile strike, advising them to "seek immediate shelter" and that "this is not a drill". Fortunately, it was.

The alert was supposed to have been an internal test of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's (HEMA's) missile alert system, conducted semi-regularly since tensions between the US and North Korea began escalating last year. According to The Washington Post, an employee mistakenly selected the wrong option from a drop-down list, issuing a genuine missile alert to the public instead of a dummy alert to HEMA staff.

The two options were labelled almost identically ('test missile alert' and 'missile alert') and placed one after another, while the only safeguard to prevent accidental alert launches was a single confirmation prompt.

The incident has drawn criticism from some experts, who say that such an important system should not be so open to human error.

"Even though the menu option still required confirmation that the user really wanted to send an alert, that wasn't enough, on this occasion, to prevent the worker from robotically clicking onwards," explained security expert Graham Cluley.

"There was an 'are you sure?' message, but the user clicked it anyway. Clearly the 'are you sure?' last-chance-saloon wasn't worded carefully enough, or didn't stand out sufficiently from the regular working of the interface, to make the worker think twice."

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai also slammed the error, calling it "absolutely unacceptable". "Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert," he said in a statement.

Compounding the problem was the fact that it took more than half an hour for HEMA to send out a follow-up message after the first alert to reassure people that it was an error. Sending the retraction required an elevated level of permissions, and had to go through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for approval.

HEMA said it has now modified the system, requiring all genuine alerts to be confirmed by a second person before they are issued, as well as adding a cancellation button allowing citizens to be immediately notified in the event of another false alarm.

Picture credit: Shutterstock

Featured Resources

B2B under quarantine

Key B2C e-commerce features B2B need to adopt to survive

Download now

The top three IT pains of the new reality and how to solve them

Driving more resiliency with unified operations and service management

Download now

The five essentials from your endpoint security partner

Empower your MSP business to operate efficiently

Download now

How fashion retailers are redesigning their digital future

Fashion retail guide

Download now

Recommended

Biden warns cyber attacks could lead to “shooting war”
cyber attacks

Biden warns cyber attacks could lead to “shooting war”

28 Jul 2021
FCC questions the legitimacy of some rural internet bids
digital divide

FCC questions the legitimacy of some rural internet bids

27 Jul 2021
Judge forces Capitol rioter to unlock laptop using facial recognition
biometrics

Judge forces Capitol rioter to unlock laptop using facial recognition

22 Jul 2021
Biden names big tech nemesis as antitrust chief
Policy & legislation

Biden names big tech nemesis as antitrust chief

21 Jul 2021

Most Popular

The benefits of workload optimisation
Sponsored

The benefits of workload optimisation

16 Jul 2021
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: A rose-tinted experience
Mobile Phones

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: A rose-tinted experience

14 Jul 2021
IT Pro Panel: Why IT leaders need soft skills
professional development

IT Pro Panel: Why IT leaders need soft skills

26 Jul 2021