In the late 1990s the millennium bug went viral before social media even existed. It triggered enough fear across the globe that governments and businesses spent billions. But when nothing really happened, the accusations against software vendors began.
In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve in 1999, the Italian government was taking a bit of stick for not acting quickly enough, or at least, not spending enough, to address the millennium bug. One CBS report on December 26th suggested a common reaction from Italians was a perhaps stereotypically relaxed ‘who cares?’. But while the majority of other countries had already spent billions on so-called fixes for the Y2K problem, Italy seemed to have had the last laugh. When the clock struck midnight and computer dates moved from 99 to 00, nothing really happened. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky and there was no infrastructure meltdown – although one Italian court clerk did discover that four convicted mafia killers should have been released 100 years earlier on January 10, 1900.
In the aftermath of Y2K, some problems did materialise. Cash registers at convenience store chain 7-Eleven went belly up, for example, although this wasn’t down to the millennium bug but because programmers that ‘fixed’ Y2K forgot the year 2000 was a leap year. There were reports of other issues on the days that followed, but to get a real sense of the hype and fear as midnight approached, you only have to remember the BBC’s real-time ‘bug watch’ coverage.
The lack of drama come midnight did prompt questions as to whether or not the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax by the software industry. Given that global spend on Y2K fixes were estimated to have been in the region of $300-600bn (some estimates put it even higher), it’s easy to see why. There were already rumblings of discontent at the money spent and the lack of real evidence for doomsday. Stories, such as the one where the US Navy put all its computer clocks forward only for everything to carry on as normal, didn’t really help.
For some, all of this hadn’t come as a big surprise. On December 11, 1999, Ross Anderson, Professor of security engineering at Cambridge University and Edinburgh University, published a paper titled ‘The Millennium Bug – Reasons not to panic’. It was the results of his department’s own experiments in measuring the potential effects of a 00 date change. The conclusion was that ‘had we done nothing at all about Y2K, we would not have been much worse off than we are now,’ wrote Anderson in the paper.