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Europe: The Millennium Bomb Is Ticking

Washington, 11 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Computer experts have begun to stridently warn of the so-called "millennium bomb" -- or the failure of certain computer software to distinguish between the 20th and 21st centuries -- saying that if preventative action against the bomb isn't taken, the world economy could grind to a halt.

The problem has to do with a part of the computer called embedded processors. These processors are small microchips that contain a program designed to do a specific function. The processors are built into just about everything including electronic machinery, household appliances, communications arrays, video recorders, bank equipment, cars, airplanes, and, of course, home and office computers.

Experts say that in the 1960's and 1970's, when the microchips were being designed, technicians used questionable cost-cutting methods. In order to save space and money, the technicians programmed the chips to recognize years as two digits rather than four. Therefore, entering the digits 6 and 2, caused the computer to infer that the year was 1962.

The problem is that after the clock ticks one second past midnight on December 31, 1999 most computers around the world will have no idea what century it is. Some may shut down, others may malfunction and some might behave in erratic and unpredictable ways.

One example of a possible disaster scenario: in 1997 a person goes to a bank and sets up a college fund for his child. He expects the account to come due in the year 2018. Other than the paper statements from the bank updating him on the interest accumulation, the record of this transaction exists only in the bank's computer.

But as soon as the century changes, the bank computer automatically assumes that the maturity date of the account is 1918, not 2018. This then results in an illogical calculation when the computer checks it records and determines that the original transaction took place in 1997 -- 79 years after the now entered maturity date. Faced with this glaring inconsistency, the computer may simply erase or shut down the account altogether, refuse to calculate interest due or make incorrect postings.

This sounds relatively harmless and easy to straighten out when it happens to one person. But if it were to happen to thousands or millions of people around the world simultaneously? Financial institutions would be under siege, public trust would be lost, and economic stability threatened.

Add to this the fact that these embedded processors are present in hospitals, schools, communication arrays, businesses, military networks, transportation grids, and so on -- and the possibilities for disaster become much more apparent and globally intertwined.

Yet despite the international nature of the problem, experts say that the United States and Great Britain are the only two countries really doing something about it.

Peter de Jager, a Canadian consultant and one of the leading experts on the millennium bomb, is quoted in the Financial Times newspaper as saying that as far as the United States is concerned, about 35 percent of American companies are actively working on a solution to the problem and more than 90 percent are examining the possible impact on their business.

In Britain, the government has taken the threat seriously enough to set up "Taskforce 2000," a group of experts and analysts to determine the extent of the millennium bomb and make recommendations to the government.

However, on mainland Europe, attitudes seem much more relaxed. The European Commission -- the executive branch of the European Union -- has twice declined to mount an awareness campaign on the millennium problem, presumably because it believes the danger is minimal.

Ian Taylor, Great Britain's technology minister, announced last week that he would for the third time raise the matter at an upcoming meeting of the European Union telecoms council. Be he added that he is not optimistic his efforts will result in any action from the Commission.

Experts warn that inaction could result in catastrophe, and they say that any delay in addressing the problem will only add to the problem. There is no quick fix, they warn, especially since computer technicians have little or no experience in handling a problem of such a global nature.

The best approach, say industry insiders, is for companies and governments to assess their own individual situations and develop strategies to protect themselves from potential disasters.

It certainly isn't an inexpensive prospect.

"The Economist" magazine reports that BankBoston -- America's 15th largest bank -- has estimated the cost of addressing the millennium problem will cost them "tens of millions of dollars," including staff retraining costs, just by the end of 1999.

Even then, protection from the millennium, bomb is not guaranteed. For example, BankBoston operates in 24 countries, with each country relying on its own local electronic and computer systems. BankBoston also conducts various business over the Internet and electronically with hundreds of clients and corporations around the world. Any one of those systems that have not been protected against the millennium bomb could infect, corrupt or bewilder BankBoston's system, despite the company's best efforts.

The bottom line, say experts, is that no one really knows exactly what will happen when the clock strikes twelve on December 31, 1999 and the millennium bomb goes off. But one thing is certain -- an awful lot of people will be anxiously watching and waiting to determine the effect of the blast.