U.S. Congress Backs Federal Efforts on Y2K

FRAMINGHAM (01/27/2000) - A key U.S. congressional committee that has bird-dogged the year 2000 (Y2K) problem for the past several years put the issue to rest today. In its final hearing on the topic, the House Technology Subcommittee concluded that the US$8 billion-plus spent by federal agencies to fix the problem wasn't wasted.

The independent proof of that, said Committee Chairman Stephen Horn (Republican, California), was a comparison of federal spending against private corporate spending.

Publicly traded firms "could not afford to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on unnecessary computer problems and contingency plans. Boards of directors would not permit it," said Horn.

"Was the money well spent? Of course it was," said Horn, who had been a leading congressional champion of Y2K remediation and a leading critic of federal progress to repair the date glitch.

But the committee was also told that information security is going to take a Y2K-like investment by Congress.

Fernando Burbano, the chief information officer at the U.S. State Department, said federal agencies don't have the money to pursue critical infrastructure protection initiatives.

As a result, federal agencies are "poorly positioned" to "address the challenges posed by the ever-growing cyberunderworld," said Burbano.

Security issues were also raised by the Y2K work itself.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) used contractors that employed foreign nationals who didn't receive security checks. Since that report came out several weeks ago, the FAA has been conducting background investigations, said Joel Willemssen, a GAO director in charge of information systems.

The White House's Y2K information center will continue to operate until the end of March, especially to monitor the impact of the leap-year rollover, which is expected to cause some minor disruptions.

Other issues remain. Many computer systems were fixed using "windowing," a technique for interpreting date data without expanding the two-digit date field. But that method was described at the today's hearing as something akin to a patch and not a permanent solution.

But federal spending on IT won't drop, even aside from any additional potential additional spending on security.

Burbano and an official the Internal Revenue Service said system development work was put aside to focus on Y2K repairs and would get back on track soon.

Despite the success of Y2K efforts, the issue has left something of a paradox in its wake.

"How was it that a winter storm caused more damages and inconveniences then the Y2K problem?" said U.S. Representative Constance Morella.

Most of the government was shut down for two days this week after a winter storm dumped about a foot of snow on the Washington area.

How did countries, such as Italy, which were seemingly far behind on Y2K remediation, pass the New Year relatively unscathed?

The person called to answer that question, John Koskinen, the White House's Y2K czar, said many countries were reporting readiness status that was well behind their actual progress on remediation But many countries, outside of most heavily IT-dependent nations such as the U.S., Canada, Japan and the U.K., relied on off-the-shelf software and weren't saddled with old legacy systems, said Koskinen.

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