A terrifying message was flashed across phones, televisions and radios this weekend in Hawaii – “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”.
Americans rushed for safety after the 8.10am message, as it took 40 minutes for authorities to confirm that this was a false alarm.
The false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert (Caleb Jones/AP)
Defence agencies including the Pentagon and the US Pacific Command renounced the message, and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) also said it was trying to verify what happened.
Norad is a US-Canadian joint command that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning to defend North America.
The mistake occurred due to an error in the user design of the system, reports the BBC, when an employee made the wrong selection from a drop-down computer menu. The employee picked the real, instead of the test option.
This particular false alarm was given a high profile on social media and through reaching the public. We look back at some of the other false alarms caused by technical malfunctions.
November 9, 1979 – the 3am wake up call
(Former US President Jimmy Carter and former USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev)
In the newly released documents from the National Security Archive, they reveal how the testing of overworked computer systems led to the belief that a Soviet attack was under way.
While his wife slumbered blissfully unaware next to him, US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski received a phone call at 3am saying that 250 Soviet missiles were en route to the United States.
However, when Brzezinkski asked for the information to be checked and found it was a false alarm, he did not make the call to President Jimmy Carter.
The seriousness of the error led to a secret message being sent to President Carter from the USSR party leader Leonid Brezhnev who said reminding him of what “tremendous danger” false warnings are.
“I think you will agree that there should be no errors in such matters. They must be completely excluded – not 99, but all 100 per cent.”
June 1980 - The failure of the 46-cent computer chip
Just six months later, with Cold War tensions still running high, two more false alerts were generated by the American warning system. On June 3 and then June 6 1980, a computer made typographical errors in the routine messages it sent out, revealed a secret fact sheet released by the archives.
Instead of saying '000' missiles had been launched, it said 002 missiles, and then 200, were on their way. The error was put down to “technical problems in the computer system”.
Precautionary measures were taken, but “human safeguards” recognised it as a false alarm as other data contradicted the message. The Pentagon attributed the error to a failed micro-electronic integrated circuit - which cost 46 cents - and "faulty message design".
“The duty officers at the command centers [sic] immediately recognized and within two or three minutes confirmed that the computer-generated data were false.”
Unsurprisingly, following these incidents, Norad was instructed to use a different computer.
September 1983 – Sunlight in Montana creates panic
Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov made a huge decision in the early morning of September 26, 1983.
The 44-year-old was on duty at the Soviet military’s early warning facility near Moscow when an alarm went off, signalling the launch of US intercontinental ballistic missiles.
However, Petrov decided that the warning systems telling him that missiles had been launched, were actually wrong.
Petrov told the BBC’s Russian Service that he decided that the five missiles heading towards the USSR were a false alarm, and reported it as a system malfunction.
Known as the “the man who saved the world” he passed away in September 2017.