US Senate: Y2K presents headaches, not disasters

Although no disasters are predicted, the year 2000 computer problem still has the potential to disrupt sectors of the economy, healthcare delivery and local government operations, a US Senate committee report said on Tuesday.

However, the report, issued with 100 days left in the year, cautioned that there should not be widespread or permanent difficulties.

"The true extent of Y2K failures will match neither the most optimistic nor the most apocalyptic predictions," said the report from the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. "Rather Y2K problems will hit sporadically, based on geography, size of organization and level of preparedness, and will cause more inconveniences than tragedies."

The most serious problems could occur abroad, where the level of preparedness varies wildly.

"Some of our important trading partners are months behind in addressing the Y2K problem and are not likely to avoid significant disruptions," the report said. "These disruptions could have adverse economic effects here and at home and, in some developing countries, result in requests for humanitarian assistance."

The countries of most concern to the committee are Russia, China, Italy and several of the countries that export oil to the US, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Columbia, Kuwait and Venezuela, the report said.

US Senator Robert Bennett, a Republican from Utah, who headed the panel along with Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, warned that despite all efforts to prepare for the year 2000, local computer breakdowns could occur. "The Y2K problem has the potential to affect you in your town, on your street," he said.

The year 2000 problem occurred because some older computer software code was written with a two-digit date field that could interpret the "00" in 2000 as 1900, which some experts believe could cause computer systems to malfunction.

The US government will spend more than $US8 billion on the year 2000 problem, ensuring that a breakdown of federal government services should not happen, the report said.

However, state and local government preparedness is still a question.

As of May 1999, 65 percent of states' critical systems were considered prepared, while just 25 percent of counties were ready as of June 1999, the report said. "Of greatest concern at the local level is the readiness of the 911 Public Safety Answering Points and the ability to provide adequate response in the face of a potential increase in demand for service due to Y2K problems," the report said.

In addition, several states are at "considerable risk" for computer failures in delivering Medicaid and children's health insurance. Those states are Kentucky, Oregon, Nevada, South Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Georgia and District of Columbia, the committee said.

Some segments of the healthcare industry, including large hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors, have invested much time and money in preparedness.

Other segments of the industry are less prepared and have "high-risk exposure" to computer problems, the report said. They include rural and inner city hospitals, nursing homes and physicians' offices.

The Federal Aviation Administration has successfully prepared the country's air traffic control system. But some domestic airports' jetway security and runway lighting systems are not yet prepared, the report said.

The telecommunications industry is nearly 100 percent prepared, although international calling may be difficult in some high-risk countries.

The regulated insurance, banking and investment services industries are well-prepared, while healthcare, oil, education, agriculture, farming, food processing and construction industries are further behind, the report said. In general, only 72 percent of small businesses plan to take preparedness action, according to the report.

The study also revealed that millions of lines of computer code sent abroad for repair of year 2000 problems are potentially vulnerable to terrorism or espionage. "In the current information age, attacks on American defense and industrial facilities in cyberspace are as real and dangerous as conventional threats to economic and national security," the report said.

The committee recommended the development of a national policy to protect the high-tech infrastructure.

The report can be found at http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/documents/100dayrpt/.

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