Risks of Y2k--From a Scientist's Perspective

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Apologies if this has been posted before.

Just wondered if the flaming "Pollys" on this forum would care to comment on this scientist's observations, assuming--of course--they have equal or better credentials.

For more on HIS credentials, see:


As for Declan, well, many folks might understand why Declan should be flamed. Still--Neumann's name is on the article.

Inside Risks 108 CACM 42, 6, June 1999

Risks of Y2K

Peter G. Neumann and Declan McCullagh

As we approach January 1, 2000, it's time to review what progress is being made and what risks remain. Our conclusion: Considerable uncertainty continues; optimists predict only minor problemsm and pessimists claim that the effects will be far-reaching. The uncertainty is itself unsettling.

Y2K fixes seem to have accelerated in the months since the Inside Risks column last September. For example, most U.S. Government agencies and departments claim they have advanced significantly in the past year, with some notable exceptions; see http//www.house.gov/reform/gmit and late-breaking worries (such as the Veterans Administration). However, some agencies have weakened their definitions of which systems are critical, and government auditors warn that the success rates are based on self-reported data.

The U.S. Government has recently been exuding a reverse-spin air of confidence, perhaps in an attempt to stave off panic. However, many states, local governments, and other countries are lagging. International reliance on unprepared nations is a serious cause for concern. Some vendor software is yet to be upgraded. Although many systems may appear to work in isolation, they depend on computer infrastructures (such as routers, telecommunications, and power), which must also be Y2K-proof. The uncertainty that results from the inherent incompleteness of local testing is also a huge factor. Cynics might even suggest that the federal government's stay-calm message is misleading, because there is no uniform definition of compliance, no uniform definition of testing, and little independent validation and verification. And then there are desires for legislating absolution from Y2K liability.

There is a real risk of popular overreaction. One of the strangest risks is the possibility of widespread panic inspired by people who fear the worst, even if the technology works perfectly. Many people are already stockpiling cash, food supplies, fuel, even guns. Bulk food companies and firearm manufacturers report record sales. Some Government officials fear that accelerated purchases in 1999 and reduced demand in early 2000 could spark a classic inventory recession.

There is also a potential risk of government overreaction. As far back as June 1998, Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who chairs the U.S. Senate's Y2K committee, asked what plans the Pentagon has ``in the event of a Y2K-induced breakdown of community services that might call for martial law." Y2K fears prompted city officials in Norfolk, Nebraska to divert funds from a new mug-shot system to night-vision scopes, flashlights for assault rifles, gas masks, and riot gear. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Canadian government will have joint military-civilian forces on alert by late December. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a Cabinet task force is devising emergency disaster responses, and thus some concerns about potentially draconian Government measures arise. Senators Frank Church and Charles McMathias wisely pointed out in a 1973 report that emergency powers ``remain a potential source of virtually unlimited power for a President should he choose to activate them.''

There is also a risk of underreaction and underpreparation. Sensibly anticipating something like a bad earthquake or massive hurricane seems prudent. Some people have lived without electricity for prolonged periods of time, for example, for six weeks in Quebec two winters ago. Water also is a precious resource, as a million Quebecois who were nearly evacuated learned. However, fundamental differences exist between Y2K preparedness and hurricane preparedness. The Y2K transition will occur worldwide (and even in space). Hurricanes and tornados are localized, and experience over many years has given us a reasonably accurate picture of the extent of what typically happens. But we have little past experience with Y2K-like transitions.

It is not uncommon for officials to assure the public that things are under control. People look to leaders for reassurance, and this is a natural response. Under normal circumstances, such statements are no more disturbing than any other law or regulation. However, calling out troops and declaring a national emergency are plans that deserve additional scrutiny and public debate. In a worst-case scenario of looting and civil unrest, the involvement of the military in urban areas could extend to martial law, the suspension of due-process rights, and seizures of industrial or personal property. U.S. Defense Department regulations let the military restore ``public order when sudden and unexpected civil disturbances, disaster, or calamities seriously endanger life and property and disrupt normal governmental functions."

It might be more reassuring if discussions were happening in public -- but some critical meetings happen behind closed doors. Increasingly, legislators are discussing details about Y2K only in classified sessions, and a new law that had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress bars the public from attending meetings of the White House's Y2K council. A partial antidote for uncertainty is the usual one: increased openness and objective scrutiny. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said it well: ``Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Declan McCullagh is the Washington bureau chief for Wired News. He writes frequently about Y2K. PGN is PGN.

(Note: above article can be found at:


There is also an interesting article there titled "Ten Myths about Y2K Inspections."

-- confused (it's@soconfusing.really), July 07, 1999



Excellent article! As you've alluded to, I've learned to ignore McCullagh, but Peter Neumann is an impressive source:

Neumann's credentials

A thought---I'd rather not encourage "Flaming Pollys"...let 'em roast their own weenies over at The Debunking campsite.

-- RUOK (RUOK@yesiam.com), July 07, 1999.

Excellent find confused!

"However, calling out troops and declaring a national emergency are plans that deserve additional scrutiny and public debate."



-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), July 07, 1999.

An article today states more or less blatantly that the counnity outreach mewetings are intended primarily to quell fears. That's a terrible disservice to the community, as is becoming increasingly apparent. My sister is in a state of craziness today because she wonders if we are being paranoid. "No one else is worried." She is not online. Another article states that one-third of the top 1000 British firms are not going to make it.

Even my online friends who are not looking at Y2K issues REFUSE to respond to me and my quoting articles that directly and plainly state what is going on. The National Guard is planning for multiple simultaneous disasters. Does this mean nothing? Okay, I just needed to vent. Sorry.

-- Mara Wayne (MaraWayne@aol.com), July 07, 1999.

Excellent article. Point of fact though, I don't believe this "PNG" is the same "PNG" that lives in and was reporting from Japan before he disappeared off the radar screen.

Mike ==================================================================

-- Michael Taylor (mtdesign3@aol.com), July 07, 1999.

Vent away, Mara.

The people need to be caaaaalllllmmmmmmm. The National Guard is planning for multiple simultaneous disasters But the people need to be caaaalllllmmmmm.

Almost word-for-word dialogue from "The Titanic:"

Rose: "Something's wrong. I can see it in your eyes."

Ship designer: "Tell only who you must. I don't want to be responsible for starting a panic."

Altogether now:

Don't pannniiiiic. . .

-- confused (it's@soconfusing.really), July 07, 1999.


This guy is PGN, the other guy is PNG.


-- Jerry B (skeptic76@erols.com), July 07, 1999.

Jerry...thanks buddy!!! wow...shoulda put my glasses on, huh?

Mike =====================================================================

-- Michael Taylor (mtdesign3@aol.com), July 07, 1999.

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