Curing the millennium bug could become an inside job for hackers

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The Independent Online
Here's the problem: Britain doesn't have enough skilled computer staff to solve the "millennium bug" computer problem: there are millions of lines of code which need to be examined by people, not machines, to check for errors.

Here's another problem: prisons are getting fuller, budgets are getting tighter, and the Prison Service is being encouraged to look for new ways to generate revenue by getting its inmates to do work for private business.

Can you see where this is heading? Of course you can. Though the computer company ICL was a little surprised the other day when a man from the Prison Service rang up and offered the services of its, ahem, captive workforce.

But then again, with the average computer contractor charging around pounds 3,000 per week to work on millennium bug problems, while the average prisoner gets pounds 7 per week for work for outside contractors (such as laundry and brush-making), you can see a certain attraction in the arrangement for private companies.

And the Prison Service could see the logic too: it's got 60,000 inmates in 136 jails. There must some people there with computer skills - even if in some cases, it was computer skills that led to them getting locked up in the first place, for example for planting viruses, defrauding companies or browsing the Internet for child porn.

However, a Prison Service spokesman said that reports which appeared yesterday in the trade magazine Computing that it might be seeking to lock up a contract with ICL were "pure speculation". "On an annual basis the prison service explores employment opportunities with hundreds of companies in a range of fields," he said.

But, he admitted, "we have begun preliminary discussions with ICL about the possibility of providing some labour to undertake data transfer work."

How would you choose the people to do the work, though? Surely the very ones who would have the right qualifications to do the work are, by definition, the ones you don't really trust to do it.

A spokesman for ICL agreed: "There's a raft of issues that need to be addressed - security, vetting, payment, getting the agreement of customers. And we wouldn't want to be accused of exploiting cheap labour."

Dealing with industry has caused some teething troubles for US prisons, which also hire their inmates' services to private companies. It has thrown up some odd pairings - including prisoners being used by long-distance phone companies to make marketing calls, and others to validate credit cards for debt agencies.

The sort of thing ICL is worried about is that its captive workforce might - accidentally or on purpose - miss some important mistake in work that was being corrected to solve the millennium bug, expected to hit computers at the end of 1999. It might take that long before they decide whether to go ahead.