Downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 on 8 January 2020: An Information Disaster?

In 1994, I helped organize a forum for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) on what we called ‘ICT disasters’. We described and compared three cases, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, a US warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on the plane. It was incorrectly identified as an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship, when in fact it was a civilian flight that was ascending. We concluded it was an information disaster in that available information was not correctly communicated, interpreted and acted on in time to prevent this accident and developed explanations for how this was able to occur. 

Image from Business Insider

I dare not suggest whether or not the downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 is comparable to the disaster of Iran Flight 655 or other civilian flight disasters. The dynamics leading to these two events are undoubtedly very different indeed. However, I do believe this latest disaster in Iran is a case that is worthy of study in ways that will go well beyond assigning blame to particular nations or actors. 

There is a need to understand the social, organizational, and technological dynamics of these disasters as a means for improving policy and practice in the specific areas in which they are embedded, but also to learn lessons that could be informative for areas far removed from airline safety and defense. For example, our case study of Iran Flight 655 was studied along with two other case studies in entirely different areas, one involving London ambulance dispatching, and another the London Stock Exchange. The common denominator was the extreme circumstances that were involved in each incident that led them to be perceived as disasters. 

By studying extreme cases of information disasters, it might be possible to provide new insights and lessons that are applicable to more routine information failures that occur in organizations and society. Such disasters might help shape safer digital socio-technical outcomes. 

If you are interested, let me suggest these readings on the Flight 655 disaster case study and how such cases can be explored for broader lessons, include:

Rochlin, G. I (1991), ‘Iran Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers). 

Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University). 

Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), Computer Power and Human Limits, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies  Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

2 thoughts on “Downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 on 8 January 2020: An Information Disaster?

  1. Bill, you make some very good points and i can only agree that this matter is very much a failure of communications, but it was a failure many hours before PS752 appeared in the air.
    I am a professional aviator, pilot, ATC and CEO, UN Diplomat and recently a Deputy Director on an ICAO project. So, i am very familiar with proper international Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs).
    Given that Iran was on a war footing at this time, (High Alert) the Military should have put in place the procedures for an Air Defence IDentification Zone (ADIZ) which would, in these circumstances, have included the suspension of all civil air traffic. This would be the ONLY way to reasonably be able to say that anything flying was hostile to Iran and to take appropriate action.
    It is totally unreasonable to expect a relatively junior military officer, (probably a Captain or Major) in a missile bunker to determine the threat from an aircraft in flight. I cannot perceive of this happening even in Iran. It is said that this Officer had ten seconds to make a decision. Absolute rubbish!!! Nobody would be able to make that decision in the vicinity of a major international airport with civil traffic in normal operations – unless, as stated above, all civil traffic was grounded and only hostile aircraft would be in the air.
    Air Traffic Control is also to blame here as it should never give an air traffic clearance to a departing aircraft that would take it over a known sensitive military installation. The Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, on TV, stated that the Ukrainian aircraft had turned toward their military installation. I doubt that is true and should definitely not have happened without the air traffic clearance from the control tower. The ATC people would have had this permanent Revolutionary Guard installation marked on their radar screens as a restricted area and would, as a matter of normal procedure, keep civil aircraft clear of it by issuing tracks and route clearances to avoid the area.
    There should have been, and probably is, a HOTLINE between the battery controller and a military air defence unit which would be responsible for tracking all air traffic in the Iranian airspace and could have instantly confirmed that there was no threat from the Ukrainian B737.
    So, in summary, the fault does lie with lack of communications but more importantly a lack of correct procedures whereby it would have been possible to determine which aircraft was a threat. The decision on that goes much higher than the missile battery commander.
    Desmond Ross (Capt.)
    Wexford, Ireland
    Mob: +353 876677285

    • Thank you. Very pertinent comment, and agree that procedures – their nature and whether they are followed – are very central to communication in such situations.

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