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Big business, government brace for 'millennium' computer bug

mainframe January 5, 1997
Web posted at: 12:00 a.m. EST (0500 GMT)

From Correspondent Rebecca Cooper

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's not the end of the world, but the so-called "millennium bug" could be a rude shock to a lot of people and their computers.

The millennium bug occurs three years from now when computers confront the year 2000. This long-anticipated computer glitch could cause chaos in far-reaching and unexpected ways.


"You could be driving down the street and your car would stop operating for example," said computer consultant Bob Cowher. "Your on-board computer would now say it's time to stop and all of the sudden your engine wouldn't run anymore."

The problem dates back to the 1960s when computer memory was limited and expensive. Many software programs only used the last two numbers in the year -- for instance, 97 instead of 1997.

tape rack

Many of those programs are still being used in large mainframe computers and some older PC software.

New computers aren't exempt. The National Institutes of Health recently rejected a shipment of new PCs that had outdated software. You can test your PC with special disks that look for potential problems.

What happens when a computer gets to 00? Your bank might think that a payment due in 2000 is actually 100 years overdue.

Prison release dates could be miscalculated, and so could pension fund balances and social security payments.

The U.S. government is fixing its "millennium bug" problem on a priority basis, focusing on programs like social security, Medicare, Medicaid and -- of course -- the Internal Revenue Service.


"Because of the importance of receiving the revenues so that we can in fact balance the budget as we all wish, one of our high priorities is to ensure that the IRS system does not run into any glitches with the year 2000," said Sally Katzen of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Most governments and big businesses are confident a major meltdown can be avoided. But for those who haven't yet addressed the issue, experts warn it can take years to fix and test systems.


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