The United States nuclear program still relies on computer systems that use 8-inch floppy disks, technology that went obsolete nearly 40 years ago, according to a report issued by the government's Government Accountability Office (GAO). The 8-inch floppies are used as part of outdated system utilized as part of the management of nuclear bombers, ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), and support aircraft. (8 inch floppies are so outdated that the Inc. image gallery didn't have any photos of them - the image above is of a circa 1980s 5.25" floppy).

According to the GAO report, entitled Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems, the federal government spends more than $60 billion dollars every year operating and maintaining older computer systems -- a figure that dwarfs the approximately $20 billion spent annually on implementing new technologies.

Using obsolete systems creates tremendous risks: for example, few people are trained in the languages used to program and run such technology, so problems could develop if a software fix were needed for some reason. Furthermore, many hardware parts used within these systems are unsupported, and may be difficult and expensive to obtain when needed - their manufacturers may even have long gone out of business.

The aforementioned 1970s-era disks aren't even the oldest technology in use; according to the report, some computer-system components in use within the federal government are over half a century old. Interestingly, I myself saw  Windows XP running in the Visitors' Center at the Pentagon when I visited the facility in 2012 - at the time Windows XP was almost 11 years old, and mainstream support for the platform had ended over three years prior.

Ironically, while the use of outdated technology creates serious risks, it does offer one positive side effect:  the technology is usually much more secure from external cyberattacks than its modern counterparts. While the 1983 movie, WarGames, does show a hacker nearly starting a nuclear war by dialing into a government system from his own computer that uses 8-inch floppies, that film does not represent present-day reality. Nuclear program systems are not connected to public networks and cannot be dialed into; older computer systems are likely entirely unreachable by external parties. Such systems also cannot be attacked using infected USB drives (Stuxnet-style) or via Macintosh or Windows malware - as they don't, and cannot, run either platform. Furthermore, the odds that some undetected vulnerability will be discovered and exploited after decades of use of a particular system - and in a system with few functions and severe technological limitations to begin with - are much smaller than the corresponding risk in newer and much more powerful technologies.

That said, the cons of using severely outdated technology clearly outweigh the benefits - security can be achieved through other means without making the huge tradeoffs necessary - and assuming the huge risks present - in order to continue using the older systems.

The military is not by any means the only division of the government using outdated technology. According to the report, the Social Security Administration had to rehire retired coders in order to maintain its COBOL-based systems. COBOL, the report notes, is also used in various Justice Department systems and within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Perhaps  even worse, the Treasury Department's "Individual Master File" - a key system used in processing individuals' taxes "is written in assembly language code" running on an IBM mainframe. I think we can fairly state that few developers today understand mainframe assembly language  - and even fewer would actually be interested in working with it.

While the military plans to upgrade its systems and replace the floppy drives by the end of next year, other departments do not yet have firm dates for upgrades. So, for now, Millennials filing taxes may literally have their data flow through the same systems that their grandparents' returns did two generations ago.

Published on: May 26, 2016
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