This Weekend Is Y2K for GPS Systems: Experts Warn the Grid, Finance, & Transportation Are at Risk

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Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

This weekend, on April 6th, we’re having another Y2K. This one is on GPS devices, as they roll over from “week 1024” to “week 1.”

  1. Best case? Nothing happens.
  2. Not so great case? If you have a Garmin or a TomTom on which you rely for navigating, you could run into trouble.
  3. Worst case? Some experts warn that the power grid, transportation, and the financial system could be affected.

What’s this all about?

First, here’s what’s going on.

The rollover issue itself is caused by the fact that GPS systems count weeks using a ten-bit parameter. This means they start counting at week zero and reset when they hit week 1,024. The first count (or “GPS epoch”) started on January 6th, 1980, and the first reset took place on August 21st, 1999. That means the next one is due April 6th this year. (source)

The good news is, devices have successfully been through an epoch before. The bad news is, some devices could go haywire and we’re way more tied into the GPS grid than we were when it happened in ’99.

What’s the worst-case scenario?

Relax. I don’t think planes will begin crashing into the ocean.

But, if you have an older device and you haven’t been updating it, there is the possibility that the epoch could cause big problems.

When the rollover happens older devices may reset their date, potentially corrupting navigation data and throwing off location estimates. GPS relies on precise timing data to operate, and each nanosecond the clock is out, translates into a foot of location error.

All this is why some have compared the issue to a sort of mini Millennium, or, Y2K Bug for GPS receivers that will come into affect from April 6th this year. Bug. That was also caused by a number rollover problem, as a lot of early software recorded the year using a two-digit code (“78” for “1978” and so on) that reset when clocks hit the year 2000. (source)

Computers. Sheesh.

More serious possible effects of the GPS Y2K

The most likely issue is that your car’s navigation system will be wonky, with inaccurate times of arrival, and incorrect times and dates.

But other problems could happen, too.

Financial companies who use GPS to record trades could have issues when the times, dates, or locations are off. As well, ports that use GPS location to report the loading of ships could have inaccurate information. Remember when there was that cyberattack and all the ships had no idea where to go?

And the website, Tom’s Guide, reported even more serious problems might occur.

…because GPS satellites are also crucial to digital timekeeping used by websites, electrical grids, financial markets, data centers and computer networks, the effect of April 6 may be even more wide-ranging.

“I’m not going to be flying on April 6,” said one information-security expert during a presentation at the RSA 2019 security conference in San Francisco this week…

…”The effects would be more widespread [today] because so many more systems have integrated GPS into their operations,” said Bill Malik, a Trend Micro vice president who said he wouldn’t fly April 6, in a private conversation with Tom’s Guide.

“Ports load and unload containers automatically, using GPS to guide the cranes,” Malik said. “Public-safety systems incorporate GPS systems, as do traffic-monitoring systems for bridges. Twenty years ago these links were primitive. Now they are embedded. So any impact now will be substantially greater.”…

FalTech GPS, a British company that makes GPS signal repeaters for indoor use, said in a blog post that “some GPS receivers, or other systems that utilize the date and time function, may not be able to cope.”

“Financial markets, power generating companies, emergency services and industrial control systems may be affected, as well as fixed-line and cellular communications networks,” the post continues. (source)

Experts seem to be at odds over the risk.

Some experts think that the risk is negligible, while others think this is something to which we should pay strict attention.

Carl “Bear” Bussjaeger, a New Hampshire-based science-fiction writer, Air Force veteran and former telecommunications network technician, reached out to us via Twitter to say that the link between GPS timing and telecom networks is not direct.

“Networks don’t time off GPS,” Bussjaeger said in a tweet. “They time off internal/master station clocks. Those clocks periodically synchronize off GPS.”

In a further conversation, Bussjaeger told us he had monitored the 1999 GPS epoch rollover as part of his telecoms job, and that there was “not so much as a bit error” on the network clocks.

“The clocks used in telecoms can free-run for days,” he said. “They’re very stable. GPS timing is really just a backup to the backup.”

During an epoch rollover, Bussjaeger said, “geolocation could glitch, but only momentarily, if at all. A GPS unit might have to reacquire the birds [satellites] to determine its location, but it’s no worse than turning on a unit and waiting for it to acquire [the satellite signal] in the first place.”

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have a problem,” he added. “I rather expect that clocks are better, more stable now.” (source)

On the other hand, not everyone sees it as a non-event.

“I would say it’s legitimate to be concerned,” Brad Parkinson, the retired Air Force colonel and Stanford University professor who was the lead architect of GPS, told San Francisco’s KPIX-TVin an interview published April 2.

“GPS affects everything we do,” he said. “It affects timing, banking, cell towers, airplanes, ships, passengers in cars … everything that we can imagine.”

“If you’re driving your car and it were to suddenly say you’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, be very suspicious,” he told KPIX-TV. (source)

So, basically, the vibe I’m getting from this is that nobody really knows what will happen, or even if anything will happen. Either way, it’s good to be aware that there’s some potential for issues and be prepped for a possible power outage – I doubt it will be long-term,

And, like a Ginsu knife commercial, there’s more.

Just because you don’t have problems on April 6th, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods.

…it’s worth noting that just because the next GPS week reset is scheduled for April 6th, actual errors might kick in later. As telecoms testing company Spirent noted in a blog post, some devices may have restarted their week count later — for example, when the manufacturer compiled their firmware. As Spirent’s Guy Buesnel writes, that means “the impact won’t necessarily be felt on rollover day itself. In fact, it’s much more likely that an affected receiver won’t start outputting erroneous data until long after the 6 April 2019.” (source)

There’s really no way then, to know if your GPS will one day steer you horribly wrong.

Unless you follow these instructions.

The good news is, you can avoid all these problems with a simple update. The Department of Homeland Security released a white paper with these recommendations:

Critical Infrastructure and other owners and operators are strongly encouraged:

1. to investigate and understand their possible dependencies on GPS for obtaining UTC,

2. to contact the GPS manufacturers of devices they use to obtain UTC

a. to understand the manufacturers’ preparedness for the April 6, 2019 WN rollover,

b. to understand actions required by CI and other owners and operators to ensure proper operation through the April 6, 2019 WN rollover, and

3. to ensure that the firmware of such devices is up-to-date (source)

Garmin says it’s no big deal, but you can also go here to learn how to update your device.

TomTom, on the other hand, warns that you really need to update your device and explains how.

What do you think will happen?

Do you think this will be a non-event like actual Y2K? Or do you foresee serious problems? If you use any kind of navigation equipment, have you updated it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

Leave a Reply

  • I hadn’t heard about this and I don’t think anything much will happen, but at the same time I’m really happy my hubby is flying back from a business trip today and not tomorrow! Our utter reliance on technology is always a worry.

    • I agree. We’ve pretty much turned over the flying of commercial airplanes to computers. Unfortunately, the loss of the Lion Air and Ethiopian planes show just how bad that can be when the computers are either programmed incorrectly or the program fails. I refuse to fly unless forced to by my company for business (which is usually few and far between).

  • Could be interesting. I usually update my GPS on the second week of April. My vacation spot has good wi-fi. I guess we’ll see.
    That’s the advantage of a cheap Garmin portable with free updates,
    Several years old and still works. If it craps out, I figure I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it.

  • We were crossing the Sea of Cortez on our sailboat on 12/31/99. At midnight (Y2K) our GPS crashed. We were lost at sea! For 5 seconds, then it rebooted and came back on.

  • BS alert.

    Helped to build the GPS system of satellites and have been through this before. It won’t be a problem. Daisy Luther needs to lay of the coffee.

  • The elephant in the room: exactly what is “older” and what is “newer”? The dates for those devices that don’t need a manual update and those that might is never given.

    Who in the world with any sense at all actually gives this type of nebulous hype credence?!

    How many of you are aware of the disaster to its devices Samsung caused with last October’s “update”? One of our “older” (pre-2018 Galaxy S6) phones was completely “bricked,” totally unusable, because of that “update.” And we were far from “alone” in suffering that pretty obvious ploy to force people to buy new devices! My Galaxy S6 still works perfectly; it never got the “update” because I never permitted it.

    I never allow updates; Apple had a similar disaster updating its devices’ OS just four or five years ago. I still have the “urgent notice” on my iPod. Think I’ll ever allow it?


    Windows 10 users have suffered similar anguish, having their files wiped out by “updates” recently. Not to mention the data wipe-outs Windows 10 caused on many, many devices when Microsoft surreptitiously loaded Windows 10 onto their turned-off devices while people were sleeping and even those who had told the company “NO, thanks” to going to Windows 10.

    Microsoft notoriously doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

    Learn about your electronic devices and beware ignorant fear-mongering hype put out by those who stand to make profits off your repairs and replacements. If you value the money and time you outlaid to and invested in these wonderful machines in the first place, learn the pros and cons of “updating” and whether it’s REALLY necessary in the first place.

    I run a Windows XP machine and two Windows 7 machines because those OS programs were the most stable. But they cannot connect to the Internet, and never get updated. They don’t need to be, since they do not go out on the Internet. They work; they are my workhorses for using programs and performing work that does not need Internet connection in any way. Never glitches, never crashes. Werks fer me!

    I still believe in the old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    Requirement No. 1: Know what “ain’t broke” is first. Then you’ll know whether it’s broke and needs fixin’. Do you REALLY need the latest and greatest glamour glitter every single time it’s offered?

  • You asked:
    What do you think will happen? Do you think this will be a non-event like actual Y2K? Or do you foresee serious problems?

    The worst New Years Party I have ever attended was Dec. 31, 1999. All of the sys admins, DBAs, network admins and such were waiting for the new year in our operations office. By the time 00:00:01 (Central) time hit we pretty much knew not much was going to happen. To get to us time had started at the international date line, traveled across Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa, the Atlantic, and the Eastern Time zone. Our counterparts at Central Office in DC (and most of the rest of the world) had already reported no incidents.

    About 3 years later in one of the Computer Nerd trade journals, they reported that they had hunted for Y2K incidents. The reported IIRC 3000 to 4000 world wide and none were in critical systems. Of course we had spent a couple of years going thru and updating date routines system wide.

    My opinion is that it’s reasonable to be concerned about possible problems.

    Since August 21st, 1999 GPS has been integrated into a huge area of society that it wasn’t in at the first turn over.
    If it’s going to pop over every 20 years, management (i.e. the decision makers) need to understand that they need to pay for the proper sub-routines to be included in the GPS software to prevent problems.

    I am map and compass type in general but find the convenience of Phone and Pad Map apps to be useful.

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