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World: Britain Warns EU About Computer 'Bomb'

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 2 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged European companies to wake up to the danger of the "millennium bomb," the problem caused by the inability of computer programs to distinguish between dates in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Blair has indicated he will use Britain's presidency of the EU, which began yesterday, to highlight the urgent need for action to avert economic and financial problems caused by the "bomb."

Blair is said to be "shocked and appalled" by the lack of preparation to deal with the potential problem among small and medium-sized enterprises. A new study shows that 55 percent of businesses are not fully aware of the implications.

A Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "The millennium bug will drive companies crazy in the year 2000."

Blair's warning reflects a genuine fear that computers around the world will crash after midnight on December 31, 1999, because their software cannot cope with the change to the year 2000. One fear is that computers will simply close themselves down, deleting all files.

The problem originates in the 1960s when computer programmers, trying to save expensive storage space, used only two digits for the year part of the date. Thus 2000 was stored as 00 which some computers, unless modified, will interpret as 1900.

One estimate put the cost of correcting the problem at $700 billion dollars worldwide.

Without corrections in software, the potential outcome could affect passports, phone systems, air traffic controls, banking records and elevators. Personal and professional files could be wiped out.

Economist Edward Yardeni gave evidence to a U.S. Senate hearing that there is a 40 percent chance the date change could cause a world economic slump as deep as the recession that followed the 1973 oil price rise.

The worst scenario is one of aircraft falling out of the sky because on-board navigation systems fail or air traffic control systems crash. Some airlines will cancel flights on January 1, 2000.

The four major British banks have each set aside $200 million to cope with the millennium time bomb.

Still, any failure could see customers' accounts deleted or a century's worth of interest added. The credit card industry has already seen a millennium bug lawsuit. A U.S. grocery chain took the makers of its sales terminals to court as they could not accept credit cards expiring after 1999.

A special report in the Daily Telegraph newspaper says most companies depend on their computer systems to carry out their business, but even if these systems work, office heating, ventilation, lifts and security systems -- all of which dependent on microchips -- may fail.

Britain's National Health Service, one of the largest enterprises in Europe, is worried because it relies on countless life-supporting electronic systems.

A report by Professor Mike Smith of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London estimated that the millennium bug will kill 1,500 patients. He predicts a 10 percent failure because the bug will disrupt the treatment of three million patients.

Traffic lights, street lighting and ticketing systems all rely on date-dependent software. So, too, do loading systems, fire and gas detection equipment, heating systems and telephone networks.

In military technology, European and American experts are worried about the behavior of microchips in weapons guidance and communications systems. In space exploration, some older satellites have clocks which cannot make the century change.

Personal computers may be affected, too. The latest models and software programs handle four-digit dates, but older machines do not. One study found that four out of five personal computers on sale failed at least one millennium-related test. Home video recorders could be hit, too.

What to do about the problem? Analysts say that adjusting computer software so that it uses four digits instead of two is not a problem. But it is the scale of the challenge that worries business.

By one estimate, the average company needs 18 months to check its systems, which means upgrading and changing programs. British officials say Prime Minister Blair hopes "to provide a wake-up call" for EU businesses to recognise the problem during his presidency of the EU. He will also raise the issue at the next summit of leading industrialized nations. The European Commission will hold a seminar of millennium bomb experts in the next two months.

Will the clocks peal at midnight on December 31, 1999? Who knows what might happen?

But as one expert says: "On the night of December 31, keep away from planes, trains, traffic lights, and tall buildings with electronic lifts. . ."