Feeds

Rogue character space tripped Scottish exam results

AQL caught out by Excel trying to be clever

SANS - Survey on application security programs

A rogue space in the date field caused almost 30,000 Scottish students to get their exam results a day early, as Excel versions clashed and human checking fell down.

The texts telling students their Higher results (the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels) were supposed to go out Thursday morning, having been preloaded onto the automated systems at text-specialist AQL, as a CSV export of an Excel spreadsheet. The problem was a space which somehow got appended to the dates, causing Excel to export it as a text field, in quotes, which got rejected by the automated system which then substituted the default setting: the current date.

None of this is good. AQL, who've been doing this kind of thing for more than a decade and should know better, is suitably embarrassed and assures us it won't happen again.

The vast majority of AQL's clients, which number more than 30,000, manage their requirements through a direct interface with AQL's Web Services back end. From there, they can send messages and manage campaigns without human interaction or the possibility of incompatibilities.

But the annual sending of exam results, which AQL does as a freebie, doesn't really need a direct interface, so each year the company sends the Scottish Qualifications Authority a template spreadsheet to be populated and returned. This year that spreadsheet came back as an "xlsx" rather than an "xls", but (more importantly) it also came back with a space appended to every date field, causing Excel to assume it was text instead.

So Excel dropped quotation marks round the field when exporting it, which caused the import to disregard the field and replace it with a default date – today (that day) – so the messages were instantly sent out.

Fortunately the damage was minimal. Students got their results slightly early but as the clearing system wasn't operational they couldn't do much with the information other than celebrate/drown their sorrows 24 hours earlier than they might have done.

AQL tells us the import software has already been fixed, so the combination of events can't reoccur. They'll be checking all their processes to find out why the last-stage human read-through didn't pick up the error, and see where else their old systems might need updating.

It's easy to say it shouldn't have happened, but as our own Verity Stob explained last week the rusting of software applications is inevitable as assumptions made during development become invalid. We'd like to think our own applications would flag such an apparently obvious corruption of the imported data, but there's nothing like watching someone else get it wrong to focus the mind and make sure its not us the next time around. ®

3 Big data security analytics techniques

More from The Register

next story
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS: Great changes, but sssh don't mention the...
Why HELLO Amazon! You weren't here last time
This time it's 'Personal': new Office 365 sub covers just two devices
Redmond also brings Office into Google's back yard
Next Windows obsolescence panic is 450 days from … NOW!
The clock is ticking louder for Windows Server 2003 R2 users
Half of Twitter's 'active users' are SILENT STALKERS
Nearly 50% have NEVER tweeted a word
OpenBSD founder wants to bin buggy OpenSSL library, launches fork
One Heartbleed vuln was too many for Theo de Raadt
Got Windows 8.1 Update yet? Get ready for YET ANOTHER ONE – rumor
Leaker claims big release due this fall as Microsoft herds us into the CLOUD
Microsoft TIER SMEAR changes app prices whether devs ask or not
Some go up, some go down, Redmond goes silent
Batten down the hatches, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS due in TWO DAYS
Admins dab straining server brows in advance of Trusty Tahr's long-term support landing
Red Hat to ship RHEL 7 release candidate with a taste of container tech
Grab 'near-final' version of next Enterprise Linux next week
prev story

Whitepapers

Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.