If you've been watching the news, chances are you've heard a variety of
spine chilling scenarios which could arise from the year 2000 problem, also known as the
"Millennium Bug," the "Millennium Bomb," and the "Y2K
Bug." There are many web sites that highlight technical (e.g. Year2000.com, Yahoo
search of Year 2000 sites) as well as legal issues.
This article covers gives the highlights regarding legal risks arisng from Y2K and how
careful planning can reduce the risk of liability for your organization.
Overview: The Technical Problem
The Y2K problem originates in the
date-processing routines of older computer software and hardware. Because computer memory
was once very limited and expensive, software and hardware generally stored dates in
six-digit form: as an example, the date June 8, 1995 might be represented in mm/dd/yy
form, i.e., as 080695. Thus, many computer systems cannot handle the "rolling
over" of the year digits on January 1, 2000 (or 010100). Lacking millennial and
centennial digits, software and hardware which perform actions based on the year digits
may treat the year 2000 as the year 1900 and yield erroneous results. As one example, a
program which sorts dates and their associated actions into ascending order may treat
dates in the year 2000 as having higher priority than dates in the 90's. As another
example, a program might calculate that -99 years have passed between December 31, 1999
(311299) and January 1, 2000 (010100) by subtracting 99 from zero. Other software and
hardware may simply be incapable of accepting years after 1999, or may fail to recognize
the year 2000 as a leap year and skip directly from February 28 to March 1.
There is no realistic chance of a universal
solution for the year 2000 problem. There are literally billions of lines of software code
wherein year 2000 problems may be hidden, and numerous different programming languages and
styles to contend with. Thus, each different program will generally require its own
customized repairs. Additionally, year 2000 problems can be difficult to isolate since
even if software is year 2000 compliant, the same is not necessarily true of the hardware
on which it runs. An example may be sitting on your own desktop, since the internal clocks
and/or memories of many older personal computers use two-digit years. The year 2000
problem is also compounded in that it is not limited to what most people regard to be
computers and software, since many modern devices have embedded microchips and digital
controllers which are also date-sensitive. For instance, numerous "smart"
building maintenance systems (heating/cooling systems, fire and intrusion alarm systems,
etc.) rely on correct date usage for proper operation.