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World: What If The Millennium Bug Strikes?

London, 21 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An EC official who is coordinating the European effort to tackle the Millennium Bug computer problem says the Chornobyl disaster was a terrible reminder of what happens when technology runs out of control.

David Talbot, head of unit software systems at the European Commission in Brussels, spoke two weeks ago (May 8) before a conference in London of Millennium Bug experts from all 15 EU member states.

The Millennium Bug is the name given to a problem caused by the inability of many computer systems to perform correct calculations involving dates that fall after 31 December 1999.

Experts say unless the problem is fixed, the bug could cause a breakdown in industries, airports and hospitals, wipe out business records, and disrupt the payment of wages and pensions.

Talbot was asked to comment on a recent claim by British safety officials that industries in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union may be least able to handle the problem.

Talbot said the situation in the eastern countries is still "obscure" but there is no room for complacency, particularly over nuclear safety, a lesson brought home by the 1986 Chornobyl accident.

A recent British government report said, in a worst case scenario, the Millennium Bug could cause a release of toxic materials from power plants, air crashes and shutdown of safety systems.

Talbot said the eastern countries may escape the worst problems faced by the more advanced western countries because a lot of their technology "is in no shape to cause accidents."

But he said experts are concerned because many computers in the former communist countries use outdated analog technology, and its behavior may be unpredictable.

The purpose of the conference was to identify key EU cross-border issues raised by the Bug and ways of tackling them. Prime Minister Tony Blair regards the problem as so serious he put it on the agenda for the G-8 summit in Birmingham.

Barbara Roche, the British minister responsible for the issue, said no country can tackle the problems in isolation, and a failure in one part of Europe could have "potentially serious knock-on effects elsewhere." She said small and medium-sized businesses had done the least to anticipate the "century date-change problem."

What exactly is the problem? Since the early days of electronic computing, in order to save on what used to be expensive magnetic storage, computer programmers used only two digits in date fields (YYMMDD). As a result, if the software is not rewritten, many computers will interpret the year 2000 as the year 1900.

The turn of the century is when most problems will occur. However, a EC report presented to the London conference says computers are already starting to fail when processing future dates. Supermarket computers are misreading the sell-by date on food. Credit cards with expiry dates after 1999 are being rejected.

The report says the worldwide cost for correcting software may be as high as 500 billion ECU. Some economists predict the Millennium Bug could tip the world into recession, and complicate the launch of the single European currency next year. One acute problem is a shortage of computer professionals who are proficient in relatively old computer programming languages.

A briefing sheet prepared by the British government "Action 2000" teams sums up the dilemma: "We have built a society based on very complex electronic systems. Our engineers cannot predict the behavior of these systems with full confidence." The report summarized what would happen to the London conference center if the Millennium Bug were to strike. It said the bug would cause the entry gate, intruder alarm, sliding doors, fire alarm, lifts, power distribution, and public address system to fail. As someone once said: over the Millennium period, it might be prudent to steer clear of airports, hospitals, traffic lights and tall buildings.