DEV Community

Cover image for The Software Bug That Created a Bomb

Posted on

The Software Bug That Created a Bomb

Software bugs are pretty common, but very few of them could lead to an explosion that went on record as being the fourth largest non-nuclear explosion of all time. According to some sources, this incident was so catastrophically large, the explosion could be seen from outer space, shaking the Earth at a whopping three kilotons of raw destructive power. Thankfully, not a single person was harmed, which is interesting given the scale of this explosion. While that’s shocking enough on it’s own, it isn’t as shocking as the fact that this malicious “bug” was introduced to systems on purpose, and was part of a much larger struggle between two world powers. To fully understand this incident, we need to go back to the 70’s.

In the 70’s, Russia was fairly advanced in pure sciences and was caught in a fierce space race against the USA, but it had to play catch-up to other developed countries in areas of technology where it lacked. Russia’s solution to that problem was simple: it would pillage what it could not make.

For a little over a decade, the KGB took advantage of labor exchange programs that had been established to improve relations with other developed countries. They inserted spies into their delegates with the sole purpose of gathering privileged know-how from other countries and reporting back to the KGB.

Throughout this operation, there was a man named Vetrov working for the KGB in France. He was an engineer with the responsibility of evaluating the technology gathered through these acts of espionage.

In 1981, Vetrov defected from the KGB for ideological reasons and provided the French government with a list of all of the active spies he knew, as well as all of the active technology targets that the KGB was going for. Among this list of targets was a Canadian gas pipeline company that had a fairly sophisticated system for managing their gas plants and distribution lines. The French president at the time, François Mitterrand, shared this information with the freshly sworn in 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagen, and that was what set the ball rolling for the fourth largest non-nuclear explosion of all time.

Having gathered this critical piece of information, the Reagan administration chose to not round up the spies they had uncovered, but instead feed them with misinformation. They tampered with software and doctored facts in an effort to foster instability within Russia’s economy. This proved to be particularly deadly when the Russians stole the software to manage their gas pipelines from the Canadian company. What the Russians got was a modified version of the software with a purposeful bug that would only affect their systems after a set amount of time, or after certain conditions have been met. In the world of computer science, this is what’s called a logic bomb.

The logic bomb reset the valves within the gas facilities so that they valves reported a lower pressure than they were actually under. As you can imagine, repressing what they were really feeling was as bad for those pipes as it is for us humans. They exploded in a cathartic chain reaction that shook the Earth and was visible from space.

This whole incident was documented by the CIA as the “Farewell Affair”, named after the assigned codename of Vetrov, the key informant to the west in the operation. There are voices of skepticism over the event due to the lack of corroborating contemporary sources. The only two sources that document it directly are a book by Thomas Reeds, and a published CIA report. Various skeptics also question if Russian pipelines were sophisticated enough to run software during the time, which, in my humble opinion, they probably were given that they used PCLs to run factories ever since the 50s.

Either way, this situation goes to show the power that software has on our lives. And how sometimes, one bug is all it takes to literally change the face the Earth.

P.S. I wrote this to try to get better at writing about tech. It was supposed to be an article about bugs, but this story really interested me so I looked into it more and ended up writing this. Anyway, I would appreciate criticism about my writing, though I'm not sure if this is the best space for that. For references to sources that this article used, please refer to my blog:

Top comments (0)