Thursday December 9, 1999

U.S. Personnel Office Sets Y2K Web Break

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government's personnel office, the nation's biggest, said Thursday it would interrupt its Internet services during the New Year weekend as a guard against computer hackers, power surges and other possible Y2K pitfalls.

In what may be the first in a string of such precautionary moves by federal agencies, the Office of Personnel Management said it would bar access for ``several hours'' to the many data banks normally available from its home page,

``We will use this time to check our systems in order to guarantee delivery of the high-quality service that you expect from us,'' the agency's director, Janet Lachance, said in a statement addressed to the 10 million current and former government employees and their families served by the site.

Instead of linking to information on federal employment polices, job listings, life insurance and other benefits, the home page will display a picture of Lachance and her explanation of the interruption, spokesman Jon-Christoper Bua said.

``We're Y2K-OK,'' he said. ``What we're doing is to preserve the integrity of the system'' against potential threats from ''computer hackers, power surges and other Y2K risks.''

Separately, an Internet service providers' group announced plans to keep its members in constant touch by a telephone conference link for at least 48 hours starting Dec. 31 to tackle any Y2K-related Internet problems as soon as possible.

The telephone conference ``bridge'' -- dubbed ``Silent Night'' -- will link 20 to 25 Internet service providers, equipment vendors and others starting shortly before the new year arrives in New Zealand, the first industrialized country to usher in 2000, the Reston, Virginia-based Internet Operators Group said.

``Although we don't expect problems, by midnight on Dec. 31 in the U.S. we should be well aware of any issues that will impact the Internet,'' the group's executive director, Ira Richer, said in a statement. He said this would mark the first such ``real-time'' cooperative effort to resolve potential outages and security incidents worldwide.

The telephone conference bridge will be coordinated with a $50 million Y2K-tracking center set up under White House auspices to monitor automated systems worldwide, Richer said.

U.S. authorities are preparing for what they fear may be a surge in malicious computer activity aimed at possible security cracks linked to the Year 2000 computer glitch.

Michael Vatis, the FBI agent who serves as the nation's top ''cyber-cop,'' said in London this week that the interagency outfit he heads -- the National Infrastructure Protection Center -- would be on the alert although it had no hard evidence of any planned attacks.

``It's natural to expect there might be people doing stupid things with computers,'' he said of possible cyber attacks timed to take advantage of any high-tech confusion sparked by the century date change.

The Defense Department, which is spending nearly $3.8 billion to prepare for the so-called Y2K glitch, is continuing to review its security arrangements for Internet connections during the calendar switch, said Susan Hansen, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

``At this time, no decision has been made on whether to shut down or disconnect from the Internet any DOD systems,'' she said.

The Agriculture Department has asked each of its in-house agencies to weigh whether their Web sites are critical to their mission during the weekend of Jan. 1 in light of security concerns.

``Agencies are asked to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the integrity of our data up to and including shutting down the web servers during the millennium weekend if necessary,'' said Susan McAvoy, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.

Among the Agriculture Department's agencies are the Farm Service Agency, which administers farm programs; the Foreign Agriculture Service, which keeps tabs on foreign demand and prospects for U.S. exports; and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which carries out meat inspections.

The Clinton administration has left it up to individual departments and agencies to determine how best to protect their Web sites. Aides to John Koskinen, President Clinton's top Y2K advisor, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on the issue.

The Office of Personnel Management, which keeps tabs on the federal government's 1.8 million workers, excluding postal service employees, said in its statement that federal agencies in the Washington area would reopen for business normally on Monday, Jan. 3, 2000, ``unless you hear otherwise.''