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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Joint Hearing: "Year 2000 Risks: What are the Consequences of Information Technology Failure?"

March 20, 1997

The Government Management, Information, and Technology Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Technology Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science held a joint hearing on March 20, 1997 entitled, "Year 2000 Risks: What are the Consequences of Information Technology Failure?" Outside witnesses included Mr. Bruce Hall, Research Director, Gartner Group; Ms. Ann Coffou, Managing Director, Year 2000 Relevance Service, Giga Information Group; Mr. Vito C. Peraino, Attorney, Hancock, Rothert and Bunshoft; and Mr. Harris Miller, President, Information Technology Association of America.

The witnesses painted a dismal picture of our ability to prevent a computer crisis in the Year 2000. Highlighting a problem called the "Time Horizon to Failure" (THF), Mr. Hall pointed out that, while much of the current furor around the Year 2000 problem deals with "looking backward" from the Year 2000, "forward-looking" technologies, such as credit cards with expiration dates in or beyond the Year 2000 are already experiencing problems. He urged the U.S. Government to stop just "assessing" and start "acting." The Gartner Group has estimated that it will cost up to $600 billion worldwide to fix the Year 2000 problem. Ms. Coffou focused on the often ignored problem of imbedded microchips in VCRs, elevators, traffic lights and other electronic equipment. She argued that, while it is estimated that only 2-4% of imbedded chips will face a problem in the Year 2000, all equipment must be tested. She gave examples of microchip failure in the Year 2000 ranging from elevators that simply stop working to wastewater treatment facilities that will malfunction, discharging raw sewage. She warned that even household thermostats could contain year-sensitive microchips. Mr. Peraino illuminated the pending litigation crisis, and he urged Congress to ask companies to disclose whether they are Year 2000 compliant immediately. In support, ITAA's counsel, Mr. Marc Pearl agreed that the potential for litigation is enormous, despite the fact that, in the Information Technology arena, the responsibility for product function ultimately lies with the user. Finally, Mr. Miller touted the value of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA)'s Year 2000 certification program.

The panel pointed out that systems around the globe must be compliant. For example, in order to use a Visa card to get money out of an ATM machine, the ATM, the branch system, the bank's mainframe, and the Visa systems must be Year 2000 compliant. Likewise, although the U.S. Government may not have direct computer links to foreign governments, the U.S. systems are dependent on foreign telecommunications systems which may have a Year 2000 problem.

Witnesses recommended that the Congress take an active role in raising awareness of the problem, pointing to United Kingdom's Robin Guenier's effective use of his bully pulpit to cajole industry to action. The panel argued that the Year 2000 crisis sprung upon us in large part because technical experts have been unable to get the attention of their superiors. Although Congress can help by providing the legislative framework, its most important role is to make sure both the private and public sectors realize the seriousness of the Year 2000 problem and begin to remedy their computer systems immediately.