Is it really any surprise to find that the federal government's information technology (IT) infrastructure is both woefully outdated and a drain on the Treasury's coffers?
A new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that $60 billion of the $80-billion annual budget spent by the U.S. government on its computer systems is dedicated toward obsolete, unsupported legacy systems.
In fact, certain of our country's nuclear arms—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—are still coordinated by programs running off of 8-inch floppy disks.
Seen This Story Before
To be sure, the federal government is no stranger to frittering away money on dysfunctional or ineffective infrastructure. It seems that this is especially true when it comes to its most important bureaucratic functions. One is quickly reminded of the Obama administration's VA nightmare, where an administrative mess and outright negligence led to long wait times for veterans to receive care—causing many of our nation's brave veterans to die while waiting to be seen.
The GAO report doesn't entail quite the same level of moral hazard as the VA scandal, at least not on its face. Nonetheless, the recurrent theme of negligence and incompetence amounts to its own "black eye" for Washington. Taking into account the implications for cybersecurity and the revelation that the country's ICBM systems operate on such outdated technology, perhaps moral hazard isn't as remote to the problem as it initially appears.
Old and Unsupported
Nobody would blame you for being terrified by the notion that the Pentagon currently operates ICBMs, nuclear bombers, and other aircraft by floppy disk systems. At the same time, this ancient computer infrastructure—much of it dating to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—is crumbling. This makes upkeep costly, which is why three-quarters of the IT budget goes to merely maintaining and operating these obsolete systems.
Much of the government's IT infrastructure is written in old COBOL code that fewer and fewer developers are proficient in. Thus, hiring developers and technicians with mastery over the old languages is more expensive. Although such computer code underlies more modern coding languages and still has standalone functionality today, it is far more cumbersome to manage and time-consuming to update.
For instance, the Treasury Department still uses programming code that was written for mainframes in the 1950s. The systems the IRS uses to account for, monitor, and distribute tax returns, and even the Treasury's so-called "Master File," are all run by technology that dates back 50 years or more. Worse still, the Department of Defense's strategic command and control as well as its COMPASS military planning model run on similarly outdated systems.
These "legacy systems" have effectively become zombie IT systems!
The Biggest Issue
Needless to say, this GAO report highlights several of the federal government's persistent problems: wasteful spending, lack of leadership, crumbling infrastructure.
Yet, another enormous concern is vulnerability. Wouldn't one imagine that much older computer systems would be even easier targets for cybersecurity attacks? Forgetting for the moment that you wouldn't expect an institution as large and complex as the U.S. government to rely on obsolete tools, there appears to be a glaring security concern in keeping unsupported technology around—especially for such essential tasks.
More negligence and incompetence, brought to you courtesy of the federal government.
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