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  State Dept. to Report on Foreign Debugging

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 1999; Page A17

For months, federal officials have avoided identifying foreign nations lagging on year 2000 computer repairs. But the State Department plans to issue "information country sheets" on international Y2K progress next week, the first in a series of reports on the computer glitch and what it could mean for travel, health, crime and public safety conditions abroad.

Since July, U.S. embassies have worked to collect data from countries perceived as lagging on Y2K fixes. Diplomats have urged these nations to take action or draw up emergency plans for computer operations that might be at risk.

The international arena has been an increasing concern for Y2K specialists since intelligence and State Department officials testified about potential problems before House and Senate committees earlier this year. Besides concerns about national security, public safety and general conditions abroad, there also are worries that widespread computer difficulties in other countries could affect economic sectors in the United States.

According to several private sector surveys, while the U.S. banking and financial services industries have fixed virtually all of their Y2K problems, parts of Asia and Latin America lag on computer repairs in their financial sector.

One area that continues to receive low marks on Y2K preparedness here and abroad is the health care industry. In the United States, large hospitals and pharmaceutical companies have fixed their systems, but federal officials worry that smaller health care providers, including doctors, risk cash-flow woes if their financial management systems are not updated.

Last month's survey of foreign nations by the International Y2K Cooperation Center, a United Nations-backed clearinghouse financed by the World Bank, showed that Eastern Europe and South America reported the latest average completion dates for Y2K fixes. Sub-Saharan Africa reported the least dependence on technology in its critical economic sectors.

The center said 76 nations responded to the survey, with 33 countries, for the first time, providing information on the World Wide Web in English. Another 56 nations shared information with the center but did not make it available for release to the public.

In general, officials said they would like to see more data from a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Haiti, Italy, Nigeria, Panama, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Venezuela.

"Without good Y2K information available to stakeholders, people will assume the worst," said Bruce McConnell, the center's director. "Working on it isn't good enough anymore. You have to be able to explain where you are."

The survey data can be found at the center's Internet site, www.iy2kcc.org. For information from the State Department about Y2K problems abroad, look for notices at www.state.gov.

Talks With Russians on Warning System

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will likely discuss the creation of a Y2K coordinating center with the Russians during his trip to Moscow at mid-month. The center, planned for Colorado Springs, would serve as a joint post to monitor for computer glitches that could cause malfunctions in Russia's early warning system for nuclear missile launches. Talks between the two nations on the center had broken off this year after NATO began bombing Serbia.

Fear of Flying

Jane Garvey, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, will be flying across America as the calendar turns to Jan. 1, 2000, but nearly half of computer scientists in a survey said they would not fly on New Year's Day.

Asked about flying on Jan. 1, 41 percent of the respondents said they would not do so and 13 percent said they were unsure, according to the poll of 209 computer science professors at U.S. colleges. The poll was reported by Reuters.

"It's one thing to have confidence; it's another thing to aviate," said Thomas Kelly, co-director of the Siena College Research Institute of Loudonville, N.Y., which conducted the survey.

Of the computer scientists predicting Y2K hitches, only 8 percent forecast a major problem; 55 percent said they expected nothing more than an inconvenience; and 37 percent predicted a "minor" inconvenience.

Addressing the Nines

This Thursday represents 9-9-99 in software shorthand and many computer experts will be watching for glitches that day. Some computers may interpret the date as a command to stop running a program or a file function.

But government officials doubt the date will cause widespread problems. The date is no longer used as a special command in most systems and it is relatively easy to spot when reviewing software code.

But given Y2K concerns, computer experts are watching Sept. 9 and other dates closely this year. They will likely give extra attention to their operations on Oct. 1, the start of the federal government's fiscal year; Jan. 1., the first day of 2000; Feb. 29, the extra day because 2000 is a leap year; and Dec. 31, 2000, just in case the computer forgot it's the last day of a leap year.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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