What the Tech: The ‘2038 problem’ is real and threatens digital infrastructure worldwide

Two events pose a threat to Americans’ ability to connect to the internet. Hackers have always posed a threat through DNS attacks, or denial of services.
Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 4:38 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2022 at 4:58 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two events pose a threat to Americans’ ability to connect to the internet. Hackers have always posed a threat through DNS attacks, or denial of services.

Another threat is known through the cyber security world as the “2038 problem” which may cause computer problems similar to the fears over the Y2K bug of 20 years ago.

The year 2038 problem is 16 years in the future, but the threat can already be seen. Take your own smartphone. Open settings and try to change the date on the calendar to the year 2038.

You can’t because a math glitch prevents many computers to see past 2037.

When computer programmers built the Unix code in 1970, they used a 32-bit system that counted seconds. As other programs and systems built on the Unix code, they, in a sense, created an “expiration date of some 2.1 billion seconds.

The countdown is on, and the counter hits 0, on January 19th, 2038 at 3:14:07, at which time computers using Unix, will re-set their clocks to December 1910. The issue, if not fixed, could affect power grids, infrastructure, flight navigation systems, and other critical services around the world.

“If we don’t fix it, we run the risk of undefined problems,” explains Mikko Hypponen, a global cyber security expert in the field of computer science. “Systems will fail in ways we don’t fully understand.”

Hypponen said from his home in Helsinki that the 2038 problem could affect more computer systems than the threat of Y2K, namely because computer advancements in the last 20 years connect virtually everything to the internet. The good news he said is that computer programmers have been working on a solution for over a decade.

One important solution came about two years ago, but there are still concerns that everything will not be fixed.

“This is a big issue but we still have time to fix it,” Hypponen said. “And many of the fixes that need to be done have already been done, but since some of the problems are already showcasing themselves, this is something we have to take seriously.”

A more immediate threat to the U.S. cyberspace is Russia’s “digital army,” already thought to be responsible for multiple cyber attacks on our infrastructure, the U.S. State Department, hospitals, banks, and American citizens. How real of a threat does Russia pose to launch a destructive cyber attack?

I asked Hypponen if there might ever be a “digital Pearl Harbor.”

“The worst-case scenario for widespread cyber attacks are different than the ones you see in the movies,” he said. “The most useful thing an attacker can do over the internet is to typically not shut down the internet or shut down or destroy systems. In most cases, it is much better for the attacker to use connectivity for spying or intelligence gathering than to just shut down the system.”

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