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Y2K ‘very real,’ more effort needed to avert disruptions, Senat

WASHINGTON (BP)–In perhaps the most complete assessment to date of the “Year 2000 problem,” a special committee of the U.S. Senate issued a 164-page report March 2 noting ongoing concerns about the readiness of many computer networks nationally and internationally for Jan. 1, 2000.
Among the assessments of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem: “The good news is that talk of the death of civilization, to borrow from Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. The bad news is that Committee research has concluded that the Y2K problem is very real and that Y2K risk management efforts must be increased to avert serious disruptions.”
The committee, created in April 1998 and recently the focus of widespread media attention, also noted: “Many organizations critical to Americans’ safety and well-being are still not fully engaged in finding a solution. For example, over 90% of doctors’ offices and 50% of small- and medium-sized businesses have yet to address the problem.”
In a summary of “the positive side” of the Y2K outlook, the committee stated that “Y2K awareness is growing. In the past year, both public and private institutions have doubled their efforts to find, evaluate, and address Y2K risk exposure. The Committee has seen a significant amount of progress since its inception. However, Senate hearings, interviews, and research have not produced convincing evidence that the Y2K problem is well in hand.”
The Y2K problem stems from computer codes from the 1950s and 1960s based on dates in the 1900s — codes that may cause computer systems to malfunction or crash when the year 2000 arrives.
Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said the Senate committee report “confirms what responsible commentators have been saying for a long time now. It seems imprudent for Christians not to follow the counsel of competent advisers and make preparations for dislocations of some magnitude.
“Preparation, not panic, is appropriate,” Merrell said. “As in every situation, the Christian ought to demonstrate confidence and trust in the Lord, and a willingness to minister to those who are not, or cannot, be prepared. Whether or not the Y2K problem becomes a Y2K crisis, there will be remarkable opportunities for prepared churches and Christians to minister and evangelize. Southern Baptists ought to lead the way in community efforts as well as in their churches.”
The Senate report acknowledged that “the most frustrating aspect of addressing the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem is sorting fact from fiction.” Problems include overblown rumors on the Internet of Y2K test failures; “image-sensitive corporations [that] downplay real Y2K problems;” and naysayers “downplaying the event as a hoax designed to sell information technology equipment.”
“Adding to the confusion, there are still very few overall Y2K compliance assessments of infrastructure or industry sectors,” the committee stated. “Consequently, the fundamental questions of risk and personal preparedness cannot be answered at this time.”
The committee, composed of four Republican senators and three Democrats, stated it will continue to research and hold hearings on various aspects of the Y2K problem during the remainder of the year.
Compared to its overarching assessments of the Y2K problem, the committee was restrained in its counsel to the nation’s citizens.
“There are reasonable steps individuals may take to prepare for the Year 2000,” the committee said. “Consumers are urged to keep copies of financial statements and ask local banks what efforts are being made toward Y2K compliance. Individuals should research companies’ compliance levels before making investment decisions.
“The Y2K problem has been likened to a winter storm, with the implication that similar preparation is appropriate,” the report continued. “Americans should prepare for Y2K based on facts and reasonable predictions about the problem’s efforts on vital services.”
The American Red Cross, however, has issued a pamphlet listing 11 areas of preparedness for possible Y2K disruptions, including stocking food, water and other supplies “to last several days to a week;” having an unspecified amount of “extra cash on hand;” and filling auto gas tanks a day or so before Dec. 31. The brochure is available from Red Cross chapters across the country.
Concerning the nation’s food supply, the Senate committee said it is “disturbing” that major corporations “within the retail and manufacturing sides of the food industry,” as well as industry trade organizations/associations, have shown “reluctance to provide public witness.”
“Committee efforts to coordinate interviews as well as to secure witnesses for hearings met significant resistance,” with various sectors citing “numerous reasons for their resistance.” The committee quoted one analyst’s assessment: “Several agriculture sub-industries are lagging far behind.”
“Any interruption within the farm-to-fork chain,” the Senate committee warned, “can result in a direct loss to those who supply food, likely translating into food shortages and price increases.”
Concerning the international Y2K outlook, the committee said it is “greatly concerned,” noting that the country is “dependent on a healthy global economy.” Several U.S. trading partners are “severely behind in their Y2K remediation efforts,” the committee noted. Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, for example, two key suppliers of imported oil, are an estimated “12 to 18 months behind” the U.S. level of readiness.
Among assessments of other areas of society by the Senate committee:
Electricity: “While some compliance efforts are behind, the utility industry as a whole is configured to handle interruptions, blackouts, and natural disasters. A prolonged, nationwide blackout is not likely to occur. However, local and regional outages remain a distinct possibility depending upon the overall preparedness of the individual electric utility serving a given area. … Of greatest concern are approximately 1,000 small, rural electric utilities that may not have the resources to devote to Y2K compliance.”
Oil and natural gas utilities: The committee acknowledged its survey of these utilities was “limited in scope,” but described them as “progressing slowly.” The committee cited “a lack of contingency planning, overly optimistic assertions that compliance will be complete, and a lack of knowledge about suppliers’ Y2K status.”
Telecommunications: “The telecommunications industry has spent billions on Y2K fixes and should have 99% of access lines in compliance by the fall 1999.”
Government: “Several state and many local governments lag in Y2K remediation, raising the risk of service disruption,” the committee said. “Of greatest concern to the Committee is the ability of local communities to provide 911 and emergency services.”
Transportation: Planes “will not fall out of the sky,” the committee said, but: “On average, the nation’s 670 domestic airports started Y2K compliance too late. The Federal Aviation Agency has made great strides in the past year, but remains at risk.” The situation with “international air traffic control and airports is much more severe,” the committee added. In other areas, public transit “could be seriously disrupted,” and the maritime shipping industry “has not moved aggressively toward compliance,” the committee said.
Health care: “Because of limited resources and lack of awareness, rural and inner-city hospitals have particularly high Y2K risk exposure.” The committee cited one study’s finding that 64 percent of hospitals — primarily smaller ones — have no plans to test their Y2K remediation efforts.
National security: The Senate committee quoted testimony provided by the U.S. defense-related Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico that “terrorists, hackers and other criminals might see Y2K as a prime opportunity to attack pieces of our infrastructure. Or they might use Y2K-induced infrastructure failures as cover for theft, arson, bombings, etc. We must be watchful of such groups in the months leading up to Y2K … .” Concerning the Department of Defense, the Senate committee noted it has “monumental Y2K problems and is severely behind in addressing them.” Utilizing 1.5 million computers, 28,000 automated information systems and 10,000 computer networks, the committee noted that DOD “relies on computer systems to conduct nearly all of its functions, including strategic and tactical military operations; sophisticated weaponry; intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination; security efforts; and more routine business operations such as payroll and logistics.”
Litigation: Legislation is needed to buffer the nation’s businesses — and the legal system — from a possible wave of “abusive lawsuits” stemming from Y2K, the committee said. “Since our economic sectors are inextricably intertwined, one company’s inability to fulfill its business contracts opens it and all the companies that depend upon it to liability,” the committee explained. “The result is a litigation domino effect, which allows the Y2K failure of one company to topple all of its business partners. A broad range of businesses and individuals will suffer some kind of economic injury, and many will undoubtedly seek recourse by filing lawsuits.”