The Future = Now x Acceleration

Y2K, Strategic Bombing and Stuxnet

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If the revelation that one government agency is wholesale spying on everyone while another is promulgating computer viruses that that perform sophisticated, real-world sabotage doesn’t freak you out – even just a little bit – then you are just not paying attention to how much of our daily lives is run by automation and computers.

Weekly World News Y2K Hysteria

Weekly World News Y2K Hysteria

But the idea that real world damage could be done with a few lines of computer code isn’t a new one.

As the last years of the 1990s were coming to a close, computer professionals, programmers and technologists slowly came to a realization. It was that all of the computer controlled, embedded microprocessors that ran much of the infrastructure that we all rely on contained a significant flaw.

Almost all computers and computer-controlled equipment worldwide used internal time clocks that only counted the years with two digits. July 4, 1999 to a computer was 070499. January 2, 2000 would be 010200 — almost 100 years earlier.

That seems like a quaint error, until you realize that computers rely heavily on its internal timekeeping to do everything. Unix computers keep track of, and log, everything a program does by making note of when everything happens; when it is supposed to happen; and what date and processor clock cycle it is and is supposed to be. And it can only count forward.

A computer cannot independently determine that 00 comes after 99. Any computer would look at that possibility at best as a logic problem and malfunction. At worst, it would rank as a “divide by zero” error and crash. Either the program would crash or the whole computer system would crash. Either way, it would be a bad day in tech town.

So, suddenly the whole world that had computerized and automated practically everything: air traffic control; train schedules; water treatment plants; hospital systems; desktop computer BIOS; elevators; telephone switches; coal mines; the International Space Station; the Space Shuttle; nuclear power plants; utility distribution; etc. etc. etc. — realized that everything could just crash and stop working on Jan. 1, 2000.


There were many reasons, but it boiled down to two main ones:

  1. When these computer systems were designed, computer memory, RAM or ROM was limited and expensive. So engineers designed computer systems to only require two digits to account for the date to save money, memory space and resources. It didn’t matter at the time because …
  2. No one ever expected these computer systems to last 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years. Surely they would be replaced by something else before the date issue became a problem.

But when it comes to technology, governments and corporations are notoriously frugal. If it works, why change it? Even computer manufacturers who were making PCs in the late 1990s included firmware BIOSes that had what became known as the Y2K bug.

BIOS 8086

PC BIOS Fixed In Emulation

Once it became widely known that this was a (significant) problem – and Congress held hearings to harrumph about it – the tech world quietly set about fixing the problem. It was a herculean effort – largely unsung – that involved short time spans – 12 to 18 months – and drawing people back out of retirement.

Many of these systems were running programs written in computer languages that no one had used in 20 years: COBOL, Fortran; Assembly; and LISP. People who knew them were hard to find and young programmers had to learn these notoriously difficult languages just to try to reverse-engineer what they were looking at.

June 24th, 2012 _Coded into Stuxnet - The Date Stuxnet Was To Deactivate Itself

June 24th, 2012 _Coded into Stuxnet – The Date Stuxnet Was To Deactivate Itself

Of course, like any challenge to humanity, most greeted it with curiosity. Companies marketed Y2K swag. (My favorite being Y2Kandy – SweetTart-like candies shaped like integrated circuit chips. I still have a bag somewhere.) Others responded with requisite hysteria: “What’s Gonna Happen?!!” And a select few held up in compounds out west and committed mass suicide because, you know, end of the world and all that.

Because of the tremendous efforts of programmers, IT people and computer hackers, nothing other than some amusing glitches occurred as a result of the Y2K “Millennium Bug.” The public decided it was a hoax when nothing happened (airplanes didn’t fall out of the sky) but people who were in charge of fixing it knew what kind of serious bullet had just been dodged.

That’s what malware like Stuxnet and FLAME represent: a Y2K event made to order. Using the technology made to run critical infrastructure to malfunction and cause physical damage in the real – not virtual world. Unlike Y2K, the effects would not be random, but certain and targeted.


B-24 Saturation Bombing Austria March 1945

In World War II, the allies and axis powers used different bombing strategies to prosecute the air war over Europe. After the Battle of Britain was won by the RAF, Germany took to bombing cities at night. Unable to target with any precision, the idea was just to level the cities and terrify the public. V1 Buzz bomb and V2 rocket bombs were launched over the channel with the idea that they’d just crash down and explode when they ran out of fuel. If they hit something of value, well, then great.

The allies did their fair share of indiscriminate bombing, but after the allies gained control of the skies over Germany, they bombed during the day, targeting things of military value: factories, highways, bridges, air fields or anything that would help the German war effort. Of course the accuracy of high-altitude bombing was not “surgical” by any means, at least the effort wasn’t overtly to terrorize the population.

That is why there was an outcry over the bombing of Dresden – a city of museums that had no major military assets. After Dresden, the allies tried to control the targeting of bombing runs as best as possible, at least until Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with a new weapon to show a reluctant Japan what might befall it if it did not bow out of the war.

When General Hayden says that Stuxnet was a “good idea” but also “a big idea,” the worry is that, by showing what these kind of software assets can do, it shows what is called “proof of concept.” That cyber warfare could work and that it can cause real damage in the physical world.

It could be a made-to-order Y2K that didn’t happen then but may in the future.


Written by digitalanalogues

June 25, 2014 at 5:37 PM

2 Responses

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  1. I never thought of Y2K in the idea of a virus. But is you pointed out they are made – to – order. To me that a little scary to think that today programers have the ability to create something that could stop a country dead in its tracks. Like I have said in past remarks there is good and bad to this wonderful world of electronics its just how it’s used and by whom.


    June 26, 2014 at 8:01 AM

    • Indeed. The old cliche comes to mind: Fire can cook your dinner. It can also burn your house down.


      June 26, 2014 at 11:27 AM

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