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The CPSR Working Group on the Year 2000 Problem


The CPSR Working Group on the Year 2000 Problem?

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) is a public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others interested in the impact of computer technology on society. As technical experts, CPSR members provide the public and policymakers with realistic assessments of the power, promise, and limitations of computer technology. As concerned citizens, they direct public attention to critical choices concerning the applications of computing and how those choices affect society.

Many of us have heard about the Year 2000 problem (Y2k) and its potential impacts but may think that the problem has been exaggerated and therefore is not something with which you need to be seriously concerned. On the other hand, some people think that the Y2k problem will result in the end of life as we know it. The Y2k Working Group was formed to help others understand the facts about the potential impact of the Y2k Problem and to work to mitigate the effects on society, organizations, and individuals.

If you need to better understand this issue you should review the articles and sites on the CPSR Y2k page at CPSR is working on the looming problem that the Y2k problem poses on society and maintains a listserver.

Current Status of the Year 2000 Problem

It is easy to underestimate the scale of action needed to correct the year 2000. Incorrect date processing may impact many types of automated systems and may mean businesses will be unable to process orders, dispatch invoices, calculate payments, process transactions and so on. Government may not be able to dispatch emergency crews, pay vendors, or process tax payments. In addition, embedded chips in many types of equipment such as traffic lights, cash registers, automobiles, and other equipment with or without date processing functions, may become inoperable as a result of the problem. The problem is so pervasive that it has the potential to severely disrupt not only individual businesses, but whole economies. This is compounded by the fact that almost all computer-based systems worldwide are affected with this problem at the same time and with an unforgiving deadline. Most large to medium size organizations are already dealing with the challenge from three perspectives:

  • Internal Management- access and remediate all internal computer systems
  • External Management - access and remediate interfaces and data exchanges
  • Infrastructure Management - access and repair basic facilities, services, and installations (such as transportation and communications systems, and water and power distribution networks)

While some failures have long been expected in internal and external systems, broader failures in infrastructure are now expected. Infrastructure failures are expected to have a ripple effect throughout the global economy. The greatest impact on society will likely be from problems with infrastructure and from the failure of organizations (mostly small) to succeed in taking the necessary steps in time to mitigate the impact on them.

Fighting the "War"

Fixing the Y2k problem has been characterized as fighting a war. Using that analogy, three defensive fronts can be identified.

Front Line: Massive efforts are underway to directly address the software problems in the private sector and governments at all levels. There is little doubt that most large and medium size organizations are fully aware and working on the issue today or will be soon. Remediation efforts must begin now in all organizations that have not already started, and all organizations must now address contingency planning for situations where remediation will not be completed in time. As for a CPSR role, there is little more that can be done to scale up resources devoted to Y2K.

The Rear: Leadership is needed to support front-line efforts and to ensure that mitigation, contingency planning, and preparedness are accomplished. Efforts here are lacking. There are no special interest groups assuming this role as of now. Here is where CPSR can have a real effect. Measures must be taken based on the assumption that some amount of the front-line effort will be less than successful. CPSR can begin advocating governmental action, including necessary laws to prevent panic and the breakdown of essential services. To help individuals and organizations cope with the disruptions that do occur, CPSR can encourage development of disaster recovery plans, training programs, guidelines, and hot lines. As in war, rear support is critical to the battle but little effort in this area is evident. More leadership from governmental and industry leaders is needed. CPSR can help increase efforts to bring the urgency of the problem to the attention of leadership as well as help generate the necessary public support for appropriate action.

The Underground: Often referred to as "doom-and-gloomers", the "underground" includes survivalists who call for the same kind of preparations as we do for global nuclear war. Their message is one of fear and panic; they see the total shut-down of government and the economy. Their advice is to stock-up on supplies and head for the hills, and arm yourself to hold the unprepared hordes away. If successful they are likely to cause public fear and panic. CPSR should counter these extreme positions with information and effective action.

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