An onslaught of crippling computer viruses may ring in the new millennium, potentially causing more disruption than any Y2K issue. The specter of multiple viruses unleashed simultaneously as the calendar turns is a threat corporations should take seriously, according to analysts at the Gartner Group's Symposium/ITxpo '99 here.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of such threats have been recorded by state departments, law enforcement agencies and others, according to a panel of Gartner Y2K analysts. And while it's impossible to estimate how many of the threats may be serious, it's a good bet that some will materialise as hackers in the virus underground compete for recognition among their peers. "There is a huge opportunity for fame for anyone who can throw down a lasting Y2K virus," said analyst Andy Kyte.
And despite years of Y2K preparations, this latest threat is catching most corporations off guard. "People are not prepared for that," said Lou Marcoccio, who recommended that companies have action plans ready in the event of infection.
In the event of an outbreak, they said, don't make the mistake of relying on the Internet as a source of information. "Be very, very careful about rumours and misinformation on the Internet that could cause you to take unnecessary preventive action," said Kyte. "A rumour can be a virus, too."
A second potential problem could leave confident corporations scrambling far into the New Year, they said. While more than 90 percent of US companies plan to have extra staff on site to deal with changeover problems, those crews are scheduled for only a few days to a few weeks, after which many expect Y2K problems to have abated. But Marcoccio said companies will be needing additional Y2K troubleshooters throughout the entire year. In fact, Gartner predicts that after a New Year's week spike of more than twice the normal number of computer failures, the failure rate will remain at more than 50 percent above average throughout the year. "Make sure you're not just focused on a narrow period," he advised.
Another imponderable is the effect of public panic. A September survey of 14,000 people indicated that misguided personal preparation activities could cause more disruption than "real" Y2K issues. For example, 55 percent of respondents said they plan to withdraw two to six weeks' worth of cash from their banks, and 14 percent will withdraw even more. Sixty-five percent intend to modify their stock investments, and 67 percent will be stocking up on more than a week's worth of food. The fear is that these types of activities will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, initiating just the kinds of problems people are trying to safeguard against. "The telecommunications industry is in pretty good shape," Marcoccio said, "but if people are going to be picking up the phone every five minutes to see if they can still get through, that could cause problems."