Why is everything crashing and are regular website and social media outages here to stay?

Report by ITV News Digital Journalist Jocelyn Evans

October has not been the best month for technology so far - with social media giants Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat all hit by outages.

And it's not just the big leagues struggling to stay online.

On Wednesday, the NHS Covid app crashed and all this week mobile phone networks have been faced with difficulties.

So why does everything keep crashing - and are regular outages set to stay?

What crashed when?

The year started badly when on January 4, the first full day back at work for many after the festive break, professional messaging service Slack went down for more than two hours.

Fast forward to October and the world was rocked after Facebook (and its full network, so Instagram and WhatsApp too) crashed for hours - impacting billions of people.

Snapchat was next to face difficulties, with users struggling to send and receive snaps for hours earlier this week. One of the big winners from the Facebook outage, the app "has yet to actually confirm why it's been suffering outages recently," according to Insider technology journalist Martin Coulter.

Snapchat is facing speculation it could have suffered "over a similar update-gone-wrong to Facebook's, or even a cyber attack, even if the latter seems unlikely," Coulter told ITV News.

On Thursday it was the turn of UK mobile network Three. The company said it was "experiencing technical issues with some calls" - an issue that remained for a good few hours. The network is the latest to face outages and issues this week.

Snapchat allows users to share pictures and video for a limited time before it disappears. Credit: Snapchat

Are we seeing more outages than usual?

It doesn't just feel like outages are on the increase, they are Gav Winter, CEO of website performance and cybersecurity firm RapidSpike.com, told ITV News.

"We see outages on numerous occasions, but over the past year I would say the large scale outages have risen."

And he doesn't think it will stop there: "I do think we'll see more and consumers need to be really aware".

What's behind the outages we've seen?

On the whole, it's maybe not quite as technical as you think.

"A lot of it is to do with human error," says Winter.

"Why do people make mistakes? They're under pressure, their company might be growing aggressively and people make shortcuts."

World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns internet is under threat Credit: PA

The world wide web is getting older now too, born in 1989 the internet is now an "ageing infrastructure" says Winter, and it's under increasing pressure from more users.

"There are more people moving into the internet, there are more centralised services for content delivery and we just have to get better at all this stuff.

"In the next five or 10 years we'll have a couple billion more people on the internet - you're only going to have more and more possible issues and errors as that infrastructure gets more utilised."

But a lot of the time, we're left with no explanation says tech reporter Martin Coulter.

"In the past week, we've seen outages on the NHS App, as well as among internet providers Three, BT, EE, and Virgin. None of them has offered a particularly straightforward explanation, only issuing the standard apology and statement saying 'some customers are experiencing problems.'"

A lot of the time it's left to speculation, and speculate we have.

"Last year, a number of popular apps – including Spotify and Tinder – suffered outages due to a bug in the code Facebook had shared with other developers," Coulter told ITV News.

"This code was designed to make it easier to log into other apps via your Facebook account, but instead sent them offline for iPhone users. We don't know for sure, but it's not impossible something similar hasn't happened here."

And there's a theory around the recent social media crashes too.

"There has also been some speculation that the more recent mobile network outages could be a knock-on effect of the social media shutdowns," Coulter says.

"When millions of people who might ordinarily have been on their Instagram or WhatsApp apps switched to web browsers, overrunning their respective networks. This has yet to be confirmed."

What caused the massive Facebook outage in particular and could it happen again?

Tech journalist Amanda Silberling told ITV News the Facebook issue last week was one of communication.

"Facebook said that this was caused by configuration changes on their routers, which coordinate traffic between Facebook’s data centres. This had a chain-reaction effect on the way Facebook’s data centres communicate, which is why the service went down. 

"So, as one example of the effects of this, the routing issue impacted Facebook's DNS (domain name server) which is the naming structure that forms the web's infrastructure."

Silberling, a writer for TechCrunch, explains: "So, during the outage, if you were to type facebook.com into your browser, the internet wouldn't know what address that's referring to.

"It's like if you tell someone, 'meet me at the cafe,' but you don't tell them which cafe, the street address of the cafe, or how to get there. This was more-so a routing issue, butthe DNS issues were a noticeable symptom of that."

So could it happen again? Siberling wouldn't be surprised. "These outages aren't common, but they're not unprecedented. We can't really speculate when this might happen again, but even in 2019, Facebook had a longer outage than last week's outage."

Does it really matter, wasn't it nice to get off Facebook and offline for a bit?

Though the break from being online, and being on social media, was welcome for some it was devastating for the businesses that rely on these sites.

"When these mistakes happen at larger companies - they are catastrophic. Not just to that business but to any organisation linked to that business," Winter says.

"If Google or Amazon of Facebook have an outage, that costs billions and billions of businesses in revenue. It's horrendous for them."

And we should be more worried still, says Winter, as hackers around the world continue to target what's online as a way of modern warfare - threatening government and healthcare infrastructures with potentially fatal consequences.