Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The U.S. Is Running Part of Its Nuclear Forces on 8-Inch Floppy Drives


The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a startling report on the state of the government’s information technology infrastructure on Wednesday. According to the report, the Department of Defense (DOD) “coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts” with a 1970s computer system that uses 8-inch floppy disks.

The total amount that the government requested for information technology services in 2017 is $89 billion. The government plans to spend the vast majority of this IT budget on operations and maintenance, the report says.

Keeping up old systems, it seems, is getting more and more expensive. Even as the overall budget for IT systems in government is rising, the amount of money being spent on upgrading systems is declining, down $7.3 billion from 2010, according to the GAO report. The rest is being spent on ancient relics that still power important systems.

In some cases, agencies have been forced to hire retired employees to maintain systems that are decades out of date.

At the Department of the Treasury, for instance, the Individual Master File, the “authoritative data source for individual taxpayers where accounts are updated, taxes are assessed, and refunds are generated,” was programmed to run in assembly language, an expensive, hard to maintain programming language that runs on an IBM mainframe.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) tracks “claims filed by veterans for benefits, eligibility, and dates of death,” using COBOL, a computer language several decades beyond its prime.

While the DOD is planning to upgrade the system that uses floppy disks by the end of 2017, both the Treasury and the VA don’t have any plans to replace their systems, which means more maintenance costs in the long run, the report says.

The report recommends that Office of Budget Management call on individual agencies to identify and prioritize legacy information systems that are in need of replacement or modernization.

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