Feb 27 2007
ABC News’ The Blotter is going to need to do some serious research and corrections if the story they ran about a pending Y2K like disaster is as bad as I think it is. I do systems engineering of larger, distributed systems, most of which have something to do with Space (but not all). And the first thing you do in these systems is make sure the clocks are all synchronized and on the same ‘time’. These days this is trivial, as anyone knows who has NOT set their PC or Cell Phone or Cable or GPS Receiver clocks in the last, …oh I don’t know…, 5-6 years. But let’s first start with the hysterics – brought to you by none other than NSA Richard Clarke – techno idiot:
A new law requiring daylight savings time to start March 11, three weeks earlier than normal, threatens a widespread, Y2K-like computer glitch in U.S. computers preset for the later start date of April 2.
In its extreme, security analysts say the glitch could cause a traffic accident or a train derailment.
“It is always the unanticipated system that nobody knew about or realized was important that will become significant,” says ABC News consultant Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterror and cyber crime chief.
“Traffic lights and switches on train rails are two candidates that could cause an accident,” said Clarke, who also said that travelers might miss connecting flights in Europe if schedules are off by an hour. He does not anticipate accidents involving planes since air traffic controllers will still see the planes.
This is the kind of fantasizing you get when you talk to a policy ‘expert’ verses a technology expert. First off, all these time synch’d systems get their own time from a trusted and central time source. Most get it from the GPS satellite network since it is cheap to put a GPS receiver in and get time updates accurate to the nano-second.
Systems on communications networks get milisecond time from the Network Time Protocol (NTP) which automatically broadcasts time (usually slaved at strategic points to the very same GPS satellite network) to all the elements on the network. In all cases the clocks of the computers and devices can be linked to UTC time, which will transition to daylight savings and back when it is told to. The fact is no one sets clocks in the distributed systems anymore – there are too many to go out and ‘set’. Do you think someone goes out and set’s the clocks on traffic lights every fall and spring? Of course they don’t! Even on older traffic management systems that may not sync to UTC all you are going to end up is whether the lights will use the rush hour timing or off rush timing! That’s it. You will not have reds and greens mixed up. As everyone who drives knows the sensors in the roadbeds determine when to switch the lights to the other traffic flow.
Trains Planes and Automobiles will be fine. If the US says we go over on April 2nd then most if not all the systems will go over the same way they do know – by following the master clocks. This is a naive and alarmist game Clarke played just to get some media play. And The Blotter was all too happy to provide the saopbox. The man has done a Chicken Little cry for attention.
Update Someone needs to remind Clarke and ABCNews that the daylight savings time transitions that happen every spring and fall do not happen on the exact same DATE – since they always put them on the same day of the week (a Sunday at 2:00 AM to minimize the disruption). Since the transportation network has successfully made it through many of these transitions before, clearly it can make it through another one.