By 2038, a major mistake will reveal the vulnerability of information technology

The failure that occurred in 2000 did not lead to the disaster that worries IT scientists, but the way the current operating system stores Time information is likely to lead to a new flaw.

In a report published by the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Denis Delbeke said that there is no doubt that everyone will fall silent at 03:14:07 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2038.

But after that date and time, computers will fail due to memory and files that have difficulty representing the time correctly or to long-standing computational oversights, such as those encountered in the famous “Y2K problem”.

Bugs or programming problems?

“It’s not a bug, it’s a programming problem because no one expects these programs to last for decades,” said Gerard Berry, a computer scientist and engineer at the Institut de France.

Year entries in computer programs consist of two digits instead of four to reduce the amount of memory used. But in early January 2000, the year reverted to zero when it was transferred from ’99 to ’00 because the computer did not display the entire year programmed, a failure that put the world at risk of an unprecedented economic disaster.

Correcting this problem required a huge investment of human and financial resources, for example, the United States spent about $100 billion to prevent and overcome the “Year 2000 problem.

Specific dates

After the first occurrence of the problem in 2000, a similar problem may occur again, but on a smaller scale, 38 years later, and this crisis is also related to the way operating systems and software store temporal information.

The current model is more accurate than in the last century, but this does not eliminate the possibility of such problems. In the current case, time is the number of seconds that have elapsed since a specific date (i.e., January 1, 1970, 00:00:00 Universal Standard Time).

Decimal integers have a limited range, and a 32-bit encoding seems more than adequate. 32-bit signed integers store the number of seconds calculated, with the plus sign indicating the seconds after a specific time and the minus sign indicating the seconds before.

The problem is that the 32-bit encoding is not sufficient to hold the number of seconds after 03:14:07 p.m. on January 19, 2038, thus becoming the -2147483648th second, so the world could witness a rewind back to 1901.

To avoid this dilemma, simply encoding the date in 64 bits (which is the current standard for computer components) would delay the expiration date of the clock by 292 billion years, about 20 times the age of the universe.

To simplify the “2038 problem”, suppose there is a counter containing 32 cells, each displaying a number, that has been reset to 1970. From that date, the counter will automatically increment to count the seconds, but in 2038, the counter will peak and will not be able to hold more seconds and will only continue to work by adding more units, otherwise, it will clear and restart from 1901.

This bug has been corrected in the most common operating systems (e.g. Unix with 64 codecs, Linux, Windows and Mac OS), but in some programs (e.g. Mysql databases) the date is still encoded in 32 bits.

This is also true for older versions of operating systems and for computers with embedded systems that are difficult to update.

This meant that computers were in an insecure state. on January 1, 2019, the call button management system in many Swiss hospitals malfunctioned in the wards and all bells were muted.

The problem was quickly averted, as happened with the iPhone 4 in the United States in the winter of 2010, when the alarm went off for an hour. On January 1 of that year, an error caused more than 20 million payment cards to be frozen in Germany for several days.

Another incident in 2007 was a time change that caused eight F-22 fighter jets to lose control (Reuters)

Loss of control

Berry warned that poor time management can have tragic consequences. in February 1991 at Dhahran, a U.S. Patriot missile failed to intercept an Iraqi Scud missile, and the explosion killed 28 soldiers and injured 98 others. The Patriot missile’s time management malfunctioned and the aircraft’s computer was forced to restart every four hours.

The authors refer to another incident in February 2007 when eight F-22 Raptor stealth fighters produced by Lockheed Martin crossed the International Date Line west of Hawaii and a system failure caused the U.S. Air Force to lose control of them.

Berry emphasized that time management has become more complex with the use of modern microprocessors, and while 20 or 30 years ago it was easy to predict how long it would take to implement the procedure, today many adjustments are made independently within the chip, making it both difficult and great.