time running out

 Remember Y2K? Worrying about what computers would do when the clock struck midnight?

Circle your calendar for January 19th, 2038.

It isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but it is the end of time according to computer programs and systems. Set to happen approximately 16 years from now. Some call it the Y238K bug.

“The year 2038 bug comes from the fact that many computer systems count time by counting seconds since the first of January 1970,” says Mikko Hypponen, one of the world’s leaders in global cyber security. I spoke to him from his home in Helsinki and he explained that when early programmers built the Unix system, which many programs run on, they used a code with a time limit. 

The countdown is underway

“And the counter has a limit of 2.1 billion seconds. We will be reaching the upper limits in the year 2038, on the 19th of January.”

To be precise, it happens at 3:14 a.m. and 7 seconds.  To see a “right-now” example, take your smartphone and try to set the date to 2038. You can’t.

time running out
Time is literally running out

“It’s a bug,” says Hypponen. “It’s a programming error that needs to be fixed. If we don’t fix it we run the risk of undefined problems. Systems will fail in ways we don’t fully understand.”

What happens a second after 32-bit Unix time ends? Computers and programs that haven’t been fixed will think it’s 1910. No one knows exactly what that will mean. But they’re concerned some things we depend on, will stop working.

It poses an even bigger threat than Y2K because unlike life in the year 1999, everything today is connected to the internet.  From flight navigation systems, postal service operations, and supermarkets.

Hypponen adds banks and ATMs are vulnerable to the bug. So is the power grid and water distribution plants, the supply chain, and nearly everything else that connects to a computer program and the internet to function.

The exact time: 3:14:07AM 1/18/38

Windows itself isn’t affected, but programs running on the Windows platform that has not been updated will be affected. In other words, we won’t truly know what’s going to happen, until it happens. At precisely 3:14 and 7 seconds into January 18th, 2038.

“I’m quite confident that this problem is going to surprise us. There will be things and systems that we don’t think about that will fail in surprising ways.”

2038 seems so far away. But how long ago does 2006 seem? That’s how fast 16 years can pass. So what’s next? Next time, I’ll take a look at what’s being done, and whether programmers will run out of time before the clock strikes.