Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fragile Financial Networks

A series of events in the past two days serve as reminders that our financial communication networks are not as stable or reliable as we would hope. ATM failure in multiple countries hit at an inauspicious time, on the same day that a French group had called for a run on the banks. It wasn’t really a run on the banks — such things aren’t actually planned weeks in advance — but observers might have gotten that impression in Ireland as Bank of Ireland customers lined up down the street and around the corner to conduct routine banking business. That’s what happens when the ATMs aren’t working.

As I write this, the Mastercard web site is back online, after being down for most of the day. There have been reports of sporadic problems with the Visa web site. These problems could be related to a denial-of-service attack from Wikileaks supporters, but if such an attack exists, it would have to be an impromptu operation on a small scale, peanuts in comparison to what a criminal organization or government could put together.

If these minor episodes are causing spot outages, then we can expect that more significant disruptions in the world, which are bound to occur sooner or later, may take some of the financial networks offline for extended periods. The less stable financial networks will compound the problems that people already face in such a situation.