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U.N. panel talks Y2K

A task force is discussing the global implications of the Y2K bug and how to handle international failure scenarios.

    A United Nations' task force today is engaged in closed-door discussions on the global implications of the Year 2000 computer glitch, and is discussing how to handle international failure scenarios.

    Today's meeting marks the first time such an international group has gathered to discuss the issue and address a number of international concerns about the impact of the Y2K glitch on national economies, financial markets, developing countries, and civil services.

    Taking part in the forum are representatives from 120 UN member states, or two-thirds of the international body, as well as representatives of other countries that are not full member states. In addition, the Clinton administration's point-man on Y2K issues, John Koskinen, is playing a leading role in the discussions.

    The UN meeting will include expert reports on: banking and finance; telecommunications; nuclear power; oil and gas; shipping and ports; and aviation. There will also be an exchange of viewpoints on contingency planning and crisis management, followed by a discussion of international strategy.

    Koskinen said it is critical for countries to work together to address "cross-border" Y2K failures, which could be hazardous to international trade and commerce. The greatest risk of these failures exists in areas with international trade and commerce, observers say.

    The Year 2000 problem, also known as the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only the last two digits of the year. Many computers now must be modified or they may mistake the year 2000 for the year 1900 or may not be able to function at all, potentially causing widespread disruptions in services in the transportation, financial, utility, and public safety sectors.

    The greatest risk of cross-border failures exists in international networks, such as transportation and telecommunications, where localized difficulties within one country can quickly spread to others.

    For example, airlines will likely refuse to fly to countries that cannot demonstrate the Year 2000 readiness of air traffic control networks. Also, localized telecommunications failures could mean that callers, or Internet transactions, in one country may not be able to get through to another.

    Concerns about cross-border Y2K failures have led some within the UN to consider what can be done within the international organization to handle this particular problem.

    The possibility of establishing international "SWAT" teams specialists to handle unanticipated problems will be discussed, said Ahmad Kamal, Pakistan's ambassador to the UN and chairman of the UN Economic and Social Council's Informatics Working Group, and head of the Y2K task force.

    "I have no doubt that SWAT teams will have to be set up, either nationally or regionally or internationally," Kamal said yesterday. "We need to decide where to set this up."

    Kamal said there are some within the UN who think that to prevent countries from initiating cross-border problems, possible enforcement rules should be given to the UN to make countries bring their systems into Y2K compliance.

    "This would have to be a resolution by the Security Council," said Kamal. "Some believe that Y2K will become a security concern by the middle of next year."

    But Koskinen hesitates from going that far. "Our job isn't to find out how to force people into compliance, but rather how can we make them aware of the problem."