The Worst Software Bugs

By Deane Barker on November 9, 2005

History’s Worst Software Bugs: An interesting article about software bugs that did more than just annoy us. The last one is chilling, involving cancer treatment software in use in Panama City and a workaround that went horribly wrong.

Multidata’s software allows a radiation therapist to draw on a computer screen the placement of metal shields called “blocks” designed to protect healthy tissue from the radiation. But the software will only allow technicians to use four shielding blocks, and the Panamanian doctors wish to use five.

The doctors discover that they can trick the software by drawing all five blocks as a single large block with a hole in the middle. What the doctors don’t realize is that the Multidata software gives different answers in this configuration depending on how the hole is drawn: draw it in one direction and the correct dose is calculated, draw in another direction and the software recommends twice the necessary exposure.

At least eight patients die, while another 20 receive overdoses likely to cause significant health problems. The physicians, who were legally required to double-check the computer’s calculations by hand, are indicted for murder.

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