The Selective Service System (SSS) sent notices to 14,250 men in Pennsylvania warning them that they faced severe fines and possible jail time if they didn’t immediately register for the draft, but considering they were all born between 1893 and 1897 the SSS shouldn’t hold its breath.
SSS: The Y2K bug finally strikes
The problem, as you can probably guess, goes back to the Year 2000 bug that most people have long forgotten about. When computer memory was actually expensive in the early days of computing, years were recorded with the last two digits to conserve space and the convention stuck until it was realized that the rollover to 2000 would cause a lot of systems to malfunction. In the end the transition went off without a hitch.
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But when a clerk at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently sent information to the SSS, he or she was supposed to select the 20th century and accidentally sent the entire list, and 14,250 men were tagged as being eligible for SSS and not having signed up. None of the people on the list are still alive as far as we know, though some of the letters were received by relatives. At least one of the recipients, Bert Huey, was a World War I vet, and given the time frame he can’t be the only one.
“It’s never happened before,” said department spokesperson Pat Schuback, the BBC reports, and the SSS has apologized for the error, saying that it has already been fixed.
The glitch evidences strange data storage practices
The story does raise some odd questions about how our bureaucracies actually store information. First, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation apparently worked around the Y2K bug by adding a separate data field for the century a person was born in, instead of expanding the 2-digit year to 4-digits, making it slightly incompatible with any future system. Second, it means that the Pennsylvania DoT keeps a last known address on hand for people who were born 120 years ago, which seems excessive. Maybe neither of those things are serious problems, but they don’t inspire much confidence and they make you wonder what other idiosyncratic data storage practices are lurking in our government bureaucracies.