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The Y2K Crisis That Didn't Happen

StoryJanuary 03, 2000
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Well, the first major business day since the Year 2000 rollover is unfolding with very few signs of Y2K glitches. Europeans returned to work today to find energy supplies and computer systems operating smoothly. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Poland are so far reporting no Y2K problems. And Switzerland’s banks have experienced no signs of abnormalities after booting up their computers. [includes rush transcript]

But the Y2K bug did infest a computer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. But Energy Department officials say it didn’t affect operations or workers. The exact nature of the malfunction wasn’t revealed because the computer controls a classified function. The plant manufactures warheads components for the M-X missile system, and is the primary uranium storage site for the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Elsewhere in the U.S., there could be headaches looming for schools and small businesses that made no preparations for the changeover. In October, the government said over one third of all public school districts were not ready for computer glitches that affect heating, food service, and teacher payrolls.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move now to another story that certainly has dominated the headlines here, and it is the issue of the Y2K crisis that didn’t happen. The government might call it "This is what prevention looks like." Others might say it was a lot of hype to pay lawyers and computer consultants to take over in the last few days.

Well, the first major business day since the year 2000 rollover is unfolding with very few signs of Y2K glitches. Europeans returned to work today to find energy supplies and computer systems operating smoothly. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Poland so far not reporting Y2K problems. Swiss banks have experienced no signs of abnormalities after booting up their computers.

But the Y2K bug did infest a computer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. But Energy Department officials say it didn’t affect operations or workers. The exact nature of the malfunction wasn’t revealed, because the computer controls a classified function. The plant manufactures warheads components for the M-X missile system and is the primary uranium storage site for the US nuclear arsenal.

Elsewhere here in the US, there could be headaches looming for schools and small businesses that didn’t make preparations for the changeover. In October, the government said over one-third of all public school districts were not ready for computer glitches that affect heating, food service and teacher payrolls.

Well, we’re joined right now by two people who are experts in the issue of computer technology. Jim Dempsey is senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Jamie Love is with the Consumer Project on Technology. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

JIM DEMPSEY: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you both. Jim Dempsey, let’s start with you. Were you surprised by the lack of problems?

JIM DEMPSEY: Well, I took a sort of an agnostic approach to it. It was clear that people were spending an awful lot of money and effort to prepare. Personally, I have to say, I bought some extra water, but I forgot to fill up the car with gas and didn’t buy any extra food, so there you are. I treated it as something that might cause some small disruption, but I really didn’t think that the cascading kinds of problems that were predicted by some were all that likely.

It is true, people spent a lot of time fixing it. I think, in retrospect, there was undoubtedly a fair amount of hype, but I think you have to say that it was a real problem that required attention. The fact that we can’t tell exactly what was the percentage of hype now, even in retrospect, and what was the percentage of reality, that’s something worth talking about and thinking about, in terms of, do any of us really understand, as consumers, as private citizens, even people who are somewhat technologically sophisticated? You do have a hard time telling the hype from the reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Love, this certainly has been an excuse for some legislation, for example, protecting corporations from liability that may have extended beyond Y2K liability. It’s been a real boon for lawyers around the issues of liabilities and for computer experts. I mean, my god, they must — they were working around the clock in the last weeks. What are your thoughts?

JAMIE LOVE: Well, I think that the idea that you might get sued if there was a problem was probably as stimulating — helped stimulated some of the efforts to fix the problem before it happened. I think that a lot of publicity that was associated with the year 2K problem was constructive, in the sense that people, even small businesses, I think, spent a lot of time looking at their systems.

I know, in our case, we have our own system at work and a fairly small organization, but we identified even in the month of December some programs that we had to switch in terms of our internet server software that wouldn’t have worked properly after January, and I think, like a lot of people, in the process of fixing problems associated with the year 2K problem, we ended up upgrading our software and ended up with probably better software, so it forced people to spend a lot of attention on their infrastructure and probably had a — one effect was probably people ended up upgrading and improving some of their computer infrastructure in that period.

I think that the — it was a mistake for the Congress to pass legislation to take people off the hook relative to problems that might have associated with the year 2K thing. The point of the tort system isn’t as much — it’s only partly to reward people who are damaged, but it’s also to give people the correct economic incentives not to damage people, so I think that big organizations probably spent some time trying to get on top of the problem.

I also think the United States has more computers to play than most other countries do. If you travel abroad, it’s pretty clear that the extent of use of computers is way above average in the United States. So I think it’s probably also true that we were more likely to see more problems in this country than elsewhere. Also I think there will be a lot of glitches that will emerge over the next week or so that were not obvious just yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think those will be? I mean, that is being mentioned and was even before New Year’s, and that was that maybe these crises wouldn’t come right at the turn of the year of 2000, but in these weeks and months to come.

JAMIE LOVE: Well, suppose, for example, you have devices that require periodic maintenance or —- I’ll just give you a small example. I mean, not that I’m aware of any year 2K problems, but Coke machines dial in to tell people when they’re empty and they need to be refilled, or elevators may need maintenance, or there’s a variety of things like that. Many of these things tend to depend upon computer technology, some of it embedded in the hardware. Hard to check, and so you might have problems with maintenance. You may have problems with -—

AMY GOODMAN: Coke machines dial in?

JAMIE LOVE: Yeah, I mean, I think the modern technology in the United States is, if you observe machines, you know, that sell Coca-Cola on the street, a lot of them are designed so that they will call in when they’re empty. I’m not saying that this is necessarily going to be a failure, a year 2K thing, but it shows how, I think, computers have now become part of all sorts of things that we do, not just the thing on your desktop that browses the web, but microwave ovens, elevators, Coke machines, all sorts of things. Your car itself all runs on microchips, and to the degree that some of these things had periodic maintenance programs built in or things like that, you might expect problems.

There was a problem, for example, in Japan of a monitoring system failing in a nuclear power plant there temporarily, because some clock had been set wrong, and it just wasn’t working properly.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go beyond talking about the glitch and talk about the issue we face in this year, in coming years, and that is also the challenge to our privacy, and also hit on the issue of Bots, r’Bots. I don’t know if you got to see the New York Times on Saturday, but it was quite unbelievable. A full-page mock New York Times for the year 2100.

JAMIE LOVE: Yeah, I saw that. Yeah, it’s funny, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the lead stories was, "R’Bots, Demanding Equality, Snarl Brain Web." And I just wanted to read a little from it. It says, "In an effort to freeze information transmissions worldwide, thousands of r’Bots last night simultaneously interrupted the Universal Global Network. The deluge of disruptions brought the net to within moments of collapsing, net supervisors confirmed minutes ago.

“The orchestrated campaign in the waning hours of 2099 was to protest the United States Supreme Court’s refusal to remove what r’Bot rights proponents characterize as the remaining legal obstacles to r’Bots living a 'normal life.'

“The campaign had won growing support among r’Bots since last October, when a deadlocked court proved unable to decide whether the union of an r’Bot and a human being constitutes marriage.

“Consolidated Monitoring said this morning that the network’s capacity to generate new nodes had averted a freeze of the web that connects human beings to one another and to all other electronic exchanges.

“In the Supreme Court’s deadlock last fall, four of its eight human justices voted to sustain a lower court’s refusal to hear the case. Three other justices sided with the court’s lone justice’Bot.

"In September, Chief Justice Lara Hand threw the court into disarray when she belatedly acknowledged 'an inappropriate relationship' with an r’Bot years earlier and recused herself from the case."

And then it says, "Three years ago, the federal appeals court for intermodal activities had ruled that marriage was legally precluded under the Supreme Court’s 'loving and nurturing' doctrine of 30 years’ standing. In its landmark 2067 decision, a unanimous court had ruled that activities involving those qualities were reserved for human beings."

And then the New York Times goes on in its January 1st, 2100 edition to say, "The 2067 decision, in a case brought by an edu’Bot, barred r’Bots from taking charge of a classroom. ["Children are different from system upgrades," that ruling said.] It was soon invoked to preclude home’Bots from child care and later, to bar medi’Bots from the 'hands-on' practice of medicine." And it goes on from there. Is this so far-fetched?

JIM DEMPSEY: Well, it raises this question and a fear, which is: Do we control this technology, or does the technology control us? I think the lesson in the Y2K issue and the response to it is that, in fact, we can control the technology. I think that’s important for issues like privacy, which you mentioned. There are those out there saying you’ve lost your privacy, privacy is dead, get over it. And that sort of expresses this feeling that we don’t create this, but we do. We create this technology every day. We design it, we can control it, we can design it the way we want it. And we can design it for privacy, or we can ignore the privacy implications, or we can design it in ways that enhance surveillance and monitoring capabilities, both of governments and corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Dempsey, we have to break for stations to identify themselves, but we will come back to you, as with the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Jamie Love with the Consumer Project on Technology in just a minute. After that, we’re going to find out just who Steve Roach, Glenn McGinnis, Anzel Jones, Toronto Patterson and Douglas Christopher Thomas are. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we are in the year 2000, as we talk about the issue of computers, computer glitches and maybe the greatest challenge in this century, and that is the issue of privacy. We’re joined by Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology and Jim Dempsey with the Center for Democracy and Technology. Jim Dempsey, you’re talking about privacy, and you believe there are ways to protect ourselves.

JIM DEMPSEY: Well, I think that the Y2K crisis and the apparent resolution of it shows that on one hand we have allowed technology to develop in ways that people don’t fully understand, and even in retrospect now people are not entirely sure how much of the Y2K crisis was hype and how much was reality. I think there was obviously, from my perspective, a mixture of both. But as we look forward now, we should take the lessons — I think we need, as Jamie pointed out, more and more of our lives are becoming dependent upon these computer systems.

I think that places increased importance upon openness. One of the important movements, I think, in the computer field is the open-source movement, which says that many types of important computer programs need not be proprietary, but that they can be open to the public and anybody can look at them and identify problems and flaws. And also the whole concept of user control. Here we have a technology, which in many respects is inherently user-controlled. Individuals could, assuming we design the systems that way, individuals could exercise greater control over the technology. Certainly, individuals can exercise more control over this than they can over television or broadcast, if you look at traditional media. And I think going forward, these need to be our watchwords and our goals to insure that the technology is open, user-controlled, that the decentralized nature of this medium is recognized and protected.

AMY GOODMAN: But it seems that we really are going in the other direction. I mean, while you talk theoretically about how we can protect ourselves at this point, you’re having to give over credit cards on the phone, over a computer. People don’t realize where that information is going.

JIM DEMPSEY: Well, that’s true. And I think the ultimate policy solution is going to be a mix of technology, market pressures brought upon companies to be more respectful of privacy and legislation and regulatory controls to protect privacy. We’re not there yet. We’re not close to there. A number of companies, though, being careless of the privacy of their customers, have gotten themselves into public relations and marketing nightmares of their own making and have had to revamp their practices in order to be more sensitive to privacy.

So, I think that is going to be an important way in which consumers push and sort of vote with their dollars for privacy. How it’s ultimately going to end up is still up for grabs, but I think that we need to recognize the potential of consumer demand. We need to recognize the potential of the technology. We need to look at some of the traditional and not-so-traditional regulatory and governmental models. We are a society of lawyers, in some respect, so we will look to that, as well, to solve this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Love, let me give you the last word and ask, I mean, it seems that we’re dealing with two huge problems. One is we’ve got some of the greatest monopolists on one side, like Microsoft, and on the other side you’ve got computer users who are very much isolated from each other. It doesn’t seem, on either side, to make for any kind of big movement.

JAMIE LOVE: Well, yeah, I’d have to put a bigger emphasis on the area of government regulation here. I think that the New York Times story you referred to — it ran over the weekend, it predicted the future — had another story, and that was how Congress had eventually decided — the United States government started auctioning off congressional seats formally, and that was meant as a kind of, I think, a bit of a spoof. But it explains, I think, why we don’t have effective privacy regulation.

We’re in a real period of privacy meltdown. We have the current range of technologies, which are unbelievable in terms of tracking in very granular faction what people see, what people buy, what people do on the internet, in ways almost to the degree you could track the pages of a book that you look through or the photographs you scan with your eyes, and so it’s very frightening, on the one hand, and then you have a complete lack of action by the Congress in the privacy front, and that’s because they’re all chasing cyber-campaign contributions. I mean, the members of Congress are corrupted by the campaign finance system, so they ignore the demands there are from the public for effective regulation of privacy, which is the only thing that would really make a difference, is if you regulate the buying and selling of personal data.

Then you have to look down the future at the next generation of privacy-invading technologies: cameras that can be worn on your clothing, and it can pick up things, or placed on the walls of buildings, or things like that. You’ll have the equivalent of truth detectors or things that can monitor your emotions. There’s a whole next generation of things that are going to be very invasive in terms of personal privacy. And unless you put realistic efforts by governments to start regulating the buying and selling of that kind of privacy-invasive information, you’re going to have real huge problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us and want to give you a chance to give out your websites for people to follow the latest on movements to protect privacy. Jamie Love with the Consumer Project on Technology?


AMY GOODMAN: And Jim Dempsey?

JIM DEMPSEY: Yes, we’re at, Center for Democracy and Technology.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you, and happy new year.

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