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Europe: Millennium Bug Threatens Euro Currency

  • Ben Partridge



London, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Concern is growing that the launch of a common European currency next year may be complicated by the "Millennium Bug" -- the inability of many computers to properly interpret dates after the year 1999.

Eleven EU countries (all except Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Greece) are set to join the new Euro currency on Jan. 1, 1998. It is one of the largest "Euro-projects" since the original Treaty of Rome established the European Common Market in 1957.

The switch to the Euro from D-marks, francs and lire is a huge undertaking. During the next two or three years, it will require the conversion of cash registers, cashpoints, and automatic banking machines across Europe. Am enormous amount of financial software must be rewritten to accommodate the changes.

But the timing of the Euro's introduction may be unfortunate because many of the world's computer programmers already are preoccupied with the "Millennium Bug." Computer experts say there is not enough time or enough manpower to cope with both problems simultaneously.

The Millennium Bug, also known as the Year-2000 problem, is caused by the inability of many computers to perform correct calculations involving dates after December 31, 1999.

The problem originates from the time when computers could store only limited amounts of information. To save computer memory, programmers since the 1960s have reduced dates to their last two digits. (Thus 1968 became "68" and 1989 became "89"). When the new millennium comes, millions of computers will read "00" as 1900, instead of 2000, because short-sited programmers failed to anticipate the problem.

Experts say this could cause chaos in passport offices, telephone systems and air traffic control towers. The payment of wages or pensions may be hit. Personal and professional records could be lost. Some computers may wipe out all records on January 1, 2000.

Newspapers have been full of "scare" stories about public safety emergencies: planes falling out of the sky, elevators stalling, traffic signals failing, all because computer software is misreading the date.

The latest alarming story last week cites British nuclear regulators as warning that a serious accident could occur at a nuclear power plant if computers fail to recognize the year 2000.

Their report, to a private meeting of European nuclear regulators in Ljubljana last month (and quoted in the New Scientist weekly) said the Millennium Bug could disrupt power supplies at power plants, disable safety systems and cause radiation leaks.

So is there a genuine case for alarm about the Millennium Bug? Many computer specialists say "yes." But many experts believe less in a "worst case" scenario than in a steady stream of minor and unpredictable failures that could help depress world economies.

One thing is sure. The single currency may face real problems. The European Commission acknowledges that attempts to tackle the Millennium Bug will collide with the extensive computerized preparations for the Euro -- adding to the "critical workload".

A report by a U.S. firm, Software Productivity Research, said the time and labor intensive efforts to fix the world's computers is "the largest software project undertaken." It also says the conversion of financial software to accommodate the Euro "ranks as the second largest software project of all time."

The report says the decision to tackle both huge projects at the same time is "one of the worst public policy decisions in history" and the probable outcome "may resemble what happened when the Titanic met the iceberg." But that's the problem with the Millennium Bug: people tend to get carried away by apocalyptic visions and apocalyptic language.
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