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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Computers and Y2K

A booming computer service industry is underway and if the reason for its awesome, avoidable costs was due to some government action, companies using computers would be in a rage. They would be in overdrive blaming government bureaucrats.

Instead, the estimated cost of $300 billion to fix the year 2000 or millennium virus problem is squarely on the shoulders of the computer hardware and software companies. These companies, in order to save computer memory, limited the year date to the last two digits — for example ’66 or ’84. This means that when the year 2000 rolls around, the dates would start with 1900, 1901 all over again.

Why didn’t these companies anticipate the year 2000, which has a certain inevitability to it, in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies? Well, they thought 2000 A.D. was a long way off, that the hardware and software would not last that long and that, anyhow, there would be a technological fix by then. Nor did they warn their customers in the Eighties either.

Just read some of the weekly computer trade magazines and see the spreading panic and the huge costs that industry must pay to fix the programs. Half the world’s data are programmed by software that can identify the decade, but not the century. Programmers who know the old computer language COBOL are getting $1200 a day plus expenses to scan and scrub millions of lines of computer codes in company after company.

This massive corporate blunder, arrogance, indifference —

call it what you will — has some immense consequences and no all purpose software fix is available at the present time. This “glitch” is built in many regular consumer goods. According to a Congressional Committee, the “security systems for badge readers, surveillance and home security systems, parking lot gates and vaults, telephone systems, automatic teller machines, medical devices, factory machinery, civilian and military avionics, process control and monitoring equipment, sprinkler systems and air-conditioning systems,” are exposed.

The New York Times gave examples closer to home about what could happen when various companies reach 2000 without fixing and testing the fix. “Your driver’s license expires because the motor vehicle department cannot recognize dates after Dec. 21, 1999. Your department store rejects your credit card because your payment is 100 years overdue. Your social security payments are cut off because the agency’s computer miscalculates your age. Your pharmacy refuses to refill your prescription because the computer says it has expired. Your tax payments are erroneously billed as overdue by the I.R.S.”

Elsewhere, the Times continues, “production schedules at all kinds of manufacturing facilities are corrupted by improper date-coding, automatic elevator programs crash, freezing high-rise elevators, airline flight schedules are thrown into disarray because of flaws in the air traffic control system computers.”

No one dares say any of these collapses will occur. But then no one is very cocky about saying that the problem will be fixed across the board by 2000 A.D. either.

Chase Manhattan Bank says it will have to spend about $250 million to change the code and then test it for its operations. The bank even thinks it will be able to acquire companies or their subsidiaries that have been damaged by mis-handled conversion efforts. This is just one bank and its expectations.

Extrapolate that across the economy and then to the Pentagon, the I.R.S. and other government agencies that were also victimized by the “Who me worry?” computer companies.

In all the literature about the year 2000 abyss, the central issue of corporate responsibility and accountability is not receiving much attention. These are the same companies that are lobbying lawmakers to squelch the legal rights of defrauded consumers to recover damages stemming from company financial scams. Those settlements rarely exceed $2 billion a year, but that is too much justice for these computer companies.

Before the year 2000 the cost to industry and government from these negligent computer hardware and software companies will exceed $300 billion plus disruptions, and all will be passed on to you, the consumer.