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Y2K Type GPS Bug Could Nobble Navigation System On April 6

Australian consumer electronics retailers could be facing questions from people who own old navigation systems after April 6th after a Y2K style bug that nobbles early GPS systems was discovered.

The GPS tech meltdown will happen when the clocks tick over on the first weekend of next month with consumers set to be told that they have to buy a new generation GPS system.

On April 6, products relying on outdated GPS technology will be affected by what’s called a “Week Number Rollover” issue that could be tipped to reset the receiver’s time and corrupt its location data causing major problems.

There are two scenario’s being considered. Users will either get a minor blip that will pass by unnoticed to the extreme possibility of disruption in air traffic control and the breakdown of important industrial systems.

It won’t affect current model smartphones because they are based on more modern GPS technology.

The issue is down to the fact that older receivers used in early GPS systems count weeks using a ten-bit field that tops out at a maximum of 1024 weeks, which is approximately 19.7 years.

Each 19.7-year period is known in GPS terms as an “epoch” and at the end of each epoch the receiver resets and starts counting again from zero.

Just like the Y2K bug raised concerns that global computer systems would be disrupted by ticking over to the new millennium, this GPS issue has happened before with little fanfare.

The first epoch started when GPS was launched in January 1980, making August 21, 1999 the first time that counters reverted back to the beginning.

That happened with barely any disruption but was before our increased use of GPS and some are concerned this time around could be more noticeable.

Bill Malik the vice president of Infrastructure Strategies at security firm Trend Micro said he wouldn’t risk flying when the week count is due to reset.

“I’m not going to be flying on April 6,” he said.

Mr Malik believes it’s worth exercising some caution given how much we rely on GPS data.

“The effects would be more widespread (this time) because so many more systems have integrated GPS into their operations,” he said.

“Ports load and unload containers automatically, using GPS to guide the cranes … 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.”

TomTom has told customers it has already rolled out a fix and “if you frequently update your device there’s no need to worry”.