Years Of Work Went Into Avoiding The Millennium Bug, Which Is Why We Can't Compare It To Brexit

Without the methodical testing and fixing that had happened, there would certainly have been many vital systems impacted
Fiona Hanson - PA Images via Getty Images

In the late 90s, as the millennium approached, the Y2K was widely reported on as a potentially catastrophic issues that would have computers crashing and places dropping out of the sky (and bear in mind computers were less integrated into our day to day lives 20 years ago).

December 31st 1999 came and went, and aside from a few minor hiccups, nothing much of note happened. The “Millennium bug”, as it was called, is in the news today as, whilst comparing it to fears about a no-deal Brexit, Sir Bernard Jenkin called it a lot of fuss over nothing, claiming experts had been wrong to say the Millennium bug could be an issue.

So was the Y2K bug “project fear” and overhyped?

I graduated in the summer of 1998, with a computer science degree. We had been made very aware of the Y2K bug on the course - the bug stemmed from attempts to save space, using just two digits to represent the year (e.g. 98), with the assumption that the year began with ’19’.

This had worked completely fine for most systems for most of the computer era, but of course would break the instant we hit 2000, when affected computers would have assumed the year was 1900. It’s not difficult to see why this could be something of an issue. After I graduated I got a job as a software developer (writing code) with a company in London who produced software for telecommunications companies. I started in September 1998. At that time everyone was well aware that December 31st 1999 was rapidly approaching, but there was no panic. And there was no panic because level headed experts had foreseen the issue and lots of work was underway to find and fix two-year date fields in software.

Much of my 1999 was spent doing just this. Some of the work required updating third party software that our products relied on to fix known “Millennium bug” issues, and some was reviewing our own code for any such problems that had crept in, and fixing them. And then it all had to be tested, documented, delivered to the customer, and rolled out to being live and working.

Every single software application the company produced, and all of the third party software that we depended on, went through exactly the same programme. All of it was completed on time.

I was on-call for the big night itself, supporting the software I had fixed and tested. Whilst I was confident in the software I was responsible for, and in the work of my colleagues, I was still slightly apprehensive as the clocks ticked over to January 1st. By the time January 1st reached the UK, having watched the news as it happened in New Zealand, I was feeling fairly relaxed about the whole thing. Only minor issues had been reported, and that was ultimately the experience in the UK too.

But this wasn’t an overhyped issue. The Millennium bug was real, and whilst we can never know what the impact would have been, without the methodical testing and fixing that had happened there would certainly have been many vital systems impacted. It wasn’t an issue because lots of work was done to ensure it wasn’t. That appears to be far from the case with Brexit - we don’t have long to go, and with a “no deal”, there’s very little chance of managing the impact in an effective manner.

Rob Pritchard, founder of The Cyber Security Expert Ltd. consultancy, was deputy head of the UK government’s Cyber Security Operations Centre, and is a RUSI Associate Fellow for cyber issues. @TheCyberSecExp,


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