NEWS FROM THE LAB - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Y2K Posted by Mikko @ 12:17 GMT

It's now the end of the year.

At the end of 1999, IT professionals around the world were busy overhauling computer systems to make them 2000 compliant. This meant double-checking all legacy software and hardware to make sure the century roll-over wouldn't cause problems.

y2kWhat was the problem then? For example, if in 1997 a program tried calculate the age of a person by subtracting current year from his birth year of 1965, it might simply do it as a calculation of 97-65, concluding correctly that the person is 32 years old. Obviously after the decade changed, the calculation would fail: calculating 00-65 would tell that this person is minus 65 years old. Making software Y2K compliant meant combing through source code of all software using dates and converting them to use four-digit years – as 2000-1965 would again compute correctly.

An enormous amount of work hours and money was spent to fix these problems.

And this work did not go to waste. The global Y2K project was a success; when January 2000 came around, most systems were already checked and fixed, and only minor problems were reported.

Unfortunately this wasn't enough. A huge hype had been generated around the problem. Mainstream media was forecasting major failures, power outages and rioting for 1st of January. And there was no shortage of salesmen trying to cash in with the hysteria. For examples, check out these products on Amazon.com: The Millennium Bug and Y2k Family Survival Guide on Video with Leonard Nimoy.

Y2k Family Survival Guide on Video with Leonard Nimoy  The Millennium Bug  

At the time it wasn't easy trying to convince people that Y2K projects will finish in time and that running out of food wasn't likely.

Then the year changed with little fanfare.

Immediately after the New Year mainstream media was quick to point out that since there were no major Y2K problems, the whole effort to find the bugs was unnecessary to begin with. In reality the millions invested in Y2k compliance prevented real-world problems.

Bizarrely, some people still today believe that there was no need to worry and computer systems would have worked fine without any extra effort.

So what does all this have to do with F-Secure? Not much, except that some people were expecting to see loads of viruses to appear over Y2K. We never saw any logic in this, but to ease concerns, we did set up a special Y2K Watch helpdesk over New Year 2000 to monitor things.

Interestingly, that Y2K Watch ten years ago was the first time we used a blog format to spread information. The page for the original F-Secure Y2K Watch Real-Time Status Updates is available here, with newest posts on the top. Entries are from December 31st 1999 to January 3rd 2000. The page also includes several real-world examples of the minor Y2K problems that were reported around the world at the time.

So what's next? Well, The Year 2038 Problem is just around the corner. If you're taking a 25-year mortgage and your bank's systems aren't 2038-compliant, you might run into this already in three year's time…

Edited to add: Some Y2K fixes in 1999 were real quick-hacks. For example a logic like this could have been applied: IF YEAR < 10 THEN YEAR = YEAR + 2000 ELSE YEAR = YEAR + 1900. Hacks like that would create problems now, in 2009 and 2010. For a real example, see one of the comments left to this post.