John Howell column 10/15/13

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 15, 2013

EBT failure a foreshadowing of future meltdown?

Saturday’s failure of the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system in Mississippi and 16 other states gives us a thumbnail sketch of the potential for catastrophic system failure that we now have built into even the most remote corners of every financial and information transaction.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

In case you weren’t at the grocery store Saturday, the EBT system — the card system that allows food stamp purchases debit-card style — quit and stayed down for hours. Eventually many shoppers gave up, abandoned their loaded carts and just walked away. 

In some cases, the EBT system was reported to have allowed the user unlimited purchases, but most seem simply to have been prevented from making any purchase at all.

Xerox Corp., the vendor that maintains the network, said that the problem arose after a routine test of a backup system. A cashier in a Batesville grocery said that the system occasionally shuts down but usually stays down no longer than 15 or 20 minutes.

Using the EBT cards instead of the currency-style paper Food Stamps they replaced has reduced fraud and helps to prevent purchases of ineligible items. It’s great when it’s working.

But like every other aspect of our lives, especially the power grid that brings us electricity and the interwoven monetary system on which almost every transaction and purchase we make relies, it is also vulnerable.

Could Saturday’s experience have foreshadowed a systems failure of such proportions that our way of life and standard of living could suffer an abrupt, lengthy interruption? I am sure that there are many brilliant minds with many billions of dollars to spend are working right now to forestall such a possibility, so I’m not going to lie awake worrying about it.

But I don’t think we should fool ourselves into thinking that it is impossible.