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Europe: Millennium Bug On Agenda Of G8 Summit

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 10 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The danger posed by the Millennium Bug, which threatens to cause computers to malfunction from 2000 unless remedial action is taken, is to be put on the formal agenda of the next G8 summit in Britain in May.

The decision to place the issue before leaders of the eight top industrialized nations was reportedly taken in talks last week between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Experts say the Millennium Bug could trigger a global recession because it could cause a breakdown in industries such as power, railways and telecommunications, and cause chaos to financial transactions including payment of pensions and welfare benefits.

The problem originates in the 1960s when programmers, trying to save costly computer memory, stored years as two, rather than four, digits -- 98 rather than 1998, and 00 rather than 2000.

When the digital clock hits midnight on December 31, 1999, it will confront a year coded as 00 -- and many computers around the world will assume the year is 1900, causing widespread chaos.

There are fears that airline computers, traffic lights, hospital equipment and safety systems will not function properly.

The problems have already begun. In the U.S., a supermarket chain rejected a supply of tinned beef because the sell-by date was past 2000; in France, shops are having difficulties with bank and credit cards with expiry dates falling in 2000.

Blair has put the problem high on the agenda of Britain's six-month presidency of the EU, saying he is "shocked" at the lack of preventive measures by small and medium-sized businesses, and that the problem "is larger and more urgent than people realize."

He is reported to have agreed with Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok that the problem should be discussed in depth at a "roundtable conference" of European industrial leaders in Britain in May.

One source close to Blair was quoted this week as saying that the "Millennium Bug" could knock two percent off the national income of all G8 countries in 2000, at a cost of many billions of dollars.

A British government agency, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has just issued a report "Safety in the Year 2000" which says that the "worst case scenario" could be the release of toxic materials from chemical and oil plants, power black-outs, air crashes, and the shutdown of critical systems in hospitals.

The HSE believes such disasters are unlikely, and that nuclear plants, in particular, have the situation under control. However, HSE officials were quoted -- in the Independent newspaper last month -- as saying they are less confident about the abilities of industries in eastern Europe and former Soviet Union to tackle the problem.

The HSE is to send envoys to the European Commission to consult on problems as they might affect the European countries, but, according to the unnamed sources, "they are more concerned about the preparations, or lack of them, in the former Communist bloc."

The report said: "Safety experts believe the Chernobyl disaster may be an indication of a dangerously low technological expertise."

How to deal with the Millennium Bug? Experts say 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 industry. In computer software, a date appears on average, by one estimate, once in every 50 lines of code. A typical program might have tens of millions of lines of code and a large organization, such as a bank, could have up to 100 such programs, each linked with others. One report suggests that it might take 50 programmers up to three years to change all the dates in a typical large institution. A related problem is an acute shortage of computer technicians.

Will midnight on December 31, 1999, lead to pandemonium? One analyst says: "Most experts believe less in an apocalyptic disaster than in a steady stream of minor and unpredictable failures which will have a gradual and debilitating effect" on economies.