Y2K: Are Citizens Getting the Straight Scoop?

NEW YORK — Are news organizations telling it straight when it
comes to possible threats posed by the Year 2000 computer problem?
More to the point, are they getting a straight word from business
and government leaders?

These were among the questions batted around at a Feb. 23
conference held here for journalists on the dynamics of the
millennium bug. The answers from speakers were sobering. Experts
raised doubts about whether the media is getting — and thus giving
— accurate information on the state of Y2K preparations.

Edward Yourdon, a software engineering consultant and author of
the best- selling ‘Time Bomb 2000,’ said reporters need to be more
skeptical in reporting on the Y2K claims made by private industry
and government officials.

‘When a company says it is making progress, you should ask: ‘How
do you measure progress? Money spent? Do you have independent
verification of progress?’ advised Yourdon, chairman and co-founder
of The Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass.

According to Yourdon, a red flag should go up in the
journalist’s mind if a company says it began working on the Y2K bug
as late as 1998, claiming the problem is now under control. Yourdon
explained that a business would not be able to tell if the problem
is under control until testing is done, and testing only occurs at
the last stage of correcting the Y2K problem.

‘The single most important reason that software projects finish
late is that they start late,’ Yourdon added, citing data culled
from software industry research.

More than 70 journalists and editors from around the country
were listening intently, including representatives from national
media outlets such as CBS’s 60 Minutes, CNN and the NBC Nightly
News as well as regional newspapers in Ohio, Maine and

Experts were in agreement at the conference that the nation’s
preparedness for the computer bug is a real concern — and not the
product of hype or paranoia.

They explained that the computer chips that are not fixed to
correctly reflect the date 2000 could trigger all sorts of
disruptions — from modest problems such as minor power outages to
serious, potentially life-threatening dilemmas, such as shortages
of life-saving medicines or building elevators that might strand
passengers for unknown lengths of time.

Yourdon advised the room full of reporters to become more
sophisticated and careful in their line of questioning to industry
and government spokespeople, whom, they said, often downplay the
problem to avoid lawsuits and curb public panic.

Walter A. Effross, a law professor at American University in
Washington, D.C., cited legal and competitive concerns on the part
of industry.

‘Businesses want information to know who’s ready but they don’t
want to give information about their own companies,’ said Effross,
chairman of the American Bar Association’s Subcommittee on
Electronic Commerce.

Companies have a duty to disclose when there is a risk to public
safety, but at the same time by disclosing, they risk the
possibility of being sued for negligence, he said.

The conference, partially funded by the Hewlett-Packard
Foundation, was co-sponsored by the Freedom Forum of Arlington,
Va., an independent foundation dedicated to journalistic standards
and freedom of speech issues, and the Foundation for American
Communications. The Los Angeles-based foundation (ed: soon to move
to Pasadena) is a nonprofit institution that works to improve
public understanding of issues through a more informed news media
and holds educational programs on science and technology in
association with the California Institute of Technology.

The experts said that a wealth of stories could be drawn from
the smaller towns and communities where the impact from the
computer bug is likely to be greater, because so many localities
are not making adequate preparations.

‘Local jurisdictions don’t realize that they must start
analyzing their police, fire emergency response systems. They
haven’t looked at it or only a narrow piece of it and don’t have
contingency plans,’ said Victor Porlier, who heads the New
York-based Center for Civic Renewal, Inc., which advises nonprofit
organizations, and is considered an authority on state and local
government Y2K preparations.

‘There are 85,000 political jurisdictions, 3,000 counties, and
half of them haven’t begun to deal with this,’ Porlier noted. He
said that while Washington State — home to Boeing Company and
Microsoft Corporation – is probably more prepared than other
states, the government has nonetheless taken extra precautions by
arranging for 3,000 National Guard units to be placed on the
streets in case any blackouts occur. The units would presumably
keep order in the event of looting.

In many cases, the federal government is doing a better job of
preparing for Y2K than are local communities, Porlier added.

At one point, the discussion prompted a science reporter from
ABC Discovery News to ask if the upcoming tests by the electric
power industry would help determine if utilities have a problem
with Y2K.

No, the industry tests ‘won’t prove anything,’ replied Rick
Cowles, an expert on management in the electric utility markets and
president of CyberServices, America, a consulting firm in Penns
Grove, N.J.

Cowles, a founding member of Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility’s Y2K Working Group, expressed the opinion that the
first of the two upcoming tests has more to do with public
relations than with technology. He said the test seemed primarily
aimed at building a perception that utility companies are
adequately managing the Y2K problem.

The April 9 drill is being conducted by the North American
Electric Reliability Council, which will test communications
systems at public utilities throughout the United States, Cowles
related. He referred reporters to an Internet discussion group with
many opinions about the upcoming utilities drill

At NERC, Gene Gorzelnic, Director of Communications, refuted
Cowles’ criticism: ‘It [the test] wasn’t designed with the idea of
improving public perception of Y2K readiness. If that happens,
that’s fine and dandy. It’s a technical simulation, what do you do
if you don’t have certain telecommunications capabilities.’

Software expert Yourdon noted that he had solar panels installed
at his home in New Mexico and an extra power generator to ensure he
and his family would have electricity come Dec. 31, 1999.

When a journalist asked Cowles, the utilities expert, if he was
making personal plans to provide his own power, he would not
respond. ‘That’s not important to know,’ he said.

Another journalist asked skeptically: All computer systems have
bugs — what makes this different?

All computers do have bugs, said Robert Alloway, director of the
National Leadership Task Force on Y2K, who was hired by Rep.
Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) to analyze national government policy
related to information technology.

Microsoft has released software packages with thousands of bugs,
said Alloway, citing one example, but the difference is that
Microsoft’s bugs wouldn’t cause infrastructures to possibly shut
down. Alloway explained that the worry isn’t with one ‘bug’ but
with layers of bugs triggered.

‘It’s a threshold issue. How many systems will fail at the same
time? Can a company sustain a crash every two and a half

All of the speakers underscored the technological
interconnectedness between private companies, governments, and
nations, due to reliance on computer chips.

If one part isn’t ready, it could cause what they described as a
‘ripple’ effect on our basic services and our economic and
financial markets.

For example, if contracts for goods aren’t received because of
telecommunications glitches, then the goods that were ordered would
not be shipped to their destinations.

Dennis Grabow, founder and chief executive officer of The
Millennium Investment Corporation in Chicago,said China and Japan
are far behind the United States in preparation. ‘Twenty percent of
our economy is based on foreign trade,’ said Grabow, an authority
on the global financial implications of the Y2K bug.

His forecast was gloomy with a silver lining for a few shrewd
companies. He predicted a major economic slowdown on the scale of
the mid-1970s recession. But he said those U.S. companies, like
Citicorp, that are prepared, will have a major competitive


Robert Alloway, Director, National Leadership Task Force on Y2K,
Alexandria, Va., e-mail:
dralloway@aol.com. Rick
Cowles, president, CyberServices, America, Penns Grove, N.J.,
609-299-4634; e-mail:
rcowles@waterw.com. Walter
Effross, associate professor, Washington College of Law, Amerian
University, Washington, D.C. , 202-274-4210; fax: 202-274-4130;
Dennis Grabow, founder and CEO, The Millennium Investment
Corporation, Chicago, Ill., 312-595-6461; fax: 312-922-8593;
Victor Porlier, Center for Civic Renewal, Delmar, N.Y.,
518-872-9290; e-mail:
ccrenewal@aol.com. Edward
Yourdon, chairman, Cutter Consortium, Arlington, Mass.,
888-814-7605; e-mail:
ed@yourdon.com. Foundation for
American Communications, Pasadena, Calif., 626-584-0010; web site:
Gene Gorzelnic, director of communications, North American Electric
Reliability Counsel, 609-452-8060.

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