The first complaints started trickling in at around 7:00 am: soda pop machines on campus had suddenly stopped accepting cash and student meal plan dollars. This was ignored as a minor inconvenience, though university employees found it somewhat odd that their calls to the machines’ manufacturer wouldn’t go through.

By 7:30, though, the trickle had turned into a river. Students waking up for class had found that their student meal plan dollars were not accepted, and that the registers would not recognize employees’ card swipes for payment in cash. Around this time, too, the IT department started receiving sporadic complaints of a network outage–unusually, all complaints were delivered in person, as people complained that IT’s phones were not accepting incoming calls.

Around 8:15, the local cell phone network collapsed under the strain of thousands of students, staff, and professors using their data plans to try and bypass the internet and telephone outage. Local merchants facing a flood of hungry students unable to purchase food even at campus retail outlets soon found that they were suffering from the same problem: their registers would not accept most transactions and refused logins. Only the smallest mom-and-pop establishments with completely manual cash registers were able to conduct any business, and even then only in cash.

Overwhelmed, the university was forced to cancel classes. The issue clearly caught the administration flatfooted, and by the time they authorized IOUs for food students had fled campus en masse for surrounding towns and several angry groups had raided stores while university employees looked on passively.

At fault? The school’s much-vaunted digital overhaul. Everything from soda pop machines to cash registers was connected to the internet and used remote servers managed by contractors to authenticate and track purchases (even those made in cash) and logon authorized users. No provisions had been made for a campuswide network outage, because such a thing was considered an extremely remote possibility.

So when a backhoe ran over the main fiber-optic pipeline outside of town, it had the unusual effect of completely disabling a system that had wormed its way into every aspect of the university community. That incident only lasted a day, though the company responsible never faced any charges.

But others had been watching and paying close attention to the situation. Next time would be far, far worse.

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