A GPS-Based Bug Could Roll Back Your Devices to 2002

A GPS-Based Bug Could Roll Back Your Devices to 2002
A Y2K-style bug could hit devices like your smartwatch this weekend if it isn't updated to deal with the GPS turnover. (Photo: Victoria Song / Gizmodo)

No one needs low-rise jeans to come back. Or capri trousers. And though they were supremely comfortable for their time, the Juicy Couture tracksuit can stay in the vault we put it in. Time has to stay synced precisely to the second, to prevent there from making a comeback. But a bug in the time rollback checking code initially scheduled for November 2038 will run this Sunday, October 24 instead. It could affect the Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers running the GPS Daemon (GPSD) software — servers that help sync up global time — and threaten to roll back the clock to a cold and dreary March 2002.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned that this weekend could bring about a Y2K bug of sorts that would keep folks from being able to log in and use their devices. The devices include everything from your desktop operating system to GPS-enabled smartwatches and smart home devices.

It’s unclear how severe the problem could be, as it’s entangled in the same uncertainty as the Y2K bug. No one is sure whether devices will encounter issues, though the threat remains. CISA urges those who handle systems on the backend to update GPSD to version 3.23, which contains the needed rollback for the bug.

GPSD is an open-source service daemon that helps translate time data and information for clocks and navigation apps. Since it’s available for Linux, Unix, macOS, and Android, it is used widely by computers, smartphones, cars with connected systems, and even robots. Some transaction validation systems use it too, which means that banking could be affected by the global rollback.

Timekeeping is vital for GPS-based devices and requires accuracy of at least 100 nanoseconds. Without that, the ecosystem gets thrown off balance. GPS was originally programmed to rely on timestamp signals that count weeks with a 10-digit field, though it tops out at 1024 weeks. That’s why, every 20 years or so, GPS systems revert to zero, which causes mass confusion among the devices that rely on it to determine the time.

The last time this happened was April 6, 2019, and that caused network crashes, flight cancellations, and even suffering for some older smartphones. That’s not to say that Sunday will have the same impact as that particular day — it might be as quiet as Y2K turned out to be. But be on the lookout for issues that might sprout up. This weekend is an excellent time to update your devices if your manufacturer pushed out a fix for this issue.