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article imageU.S. government still uses 50-year old computers for vital tasks

By James Walker     May 25, 2016 in Technology
The U.S. government is spending tens of billions of dollars every year to maintain computer systems that in some cases are over 50 years old. These aren’t systems stored in museums but rather computers actively used to store vital federal data.
Phys.org reports that a study to be published today will outline how the government could save billions by modernising all its equipment. Although the one-off cost would be very large, it would drastically reduce future maintenance expenses.
Some departments are using computer systems developed in the 1960s to store critical data. The machines behind the Social Security department's computer system are over 30 years old and run programs written in the COBOL language, developed 60 years ago.
Elsewhere, the Treasury is storing sensitive taxpayer data on a machine that is 56 years old. The Transportation Department's Hazardous Materials Information System is now 41 years old. The Department of Defence is still using a 1970s IBM computer to send emergency messages to U.S. nuclear forces. The potentially vital communications are distributed using 8-inch floppy disks.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates over $80 billion was spent on information technology last year, excluding some Pentagon systems and those of independent agencies like the CIA. Despite the obvious need for replacement systems, the IT modernisation budget has fallen. By 2017, it will be $7 billion less than it was in 2010.
The archaic systems pose a number of issues. Their obsolete nature makes it almost impossible to obtain spare parts or external technical advice. The programming languages they use are now all but eradicated so current developers are unable to work out what's going on in the code.
The employees who installed the systems have generally retired. With no new recruits to take on that have knowledge of the workings of the computers, the various departments are being left with nowhere to turn to when they need assistance.
The aging machines are also more vulnerable to outside attacks. Counterintuitively, the really archaic systems are likely to be more secure due to a lack of networking though, providing at least one benefit to maintaining the old mainframes.
"The federal government is years and in some cases decades behind the private sector," Phys.org reports Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement. "Taxpayers deserve a government that leverages technology to serve them, rather than one that deploys insecure, decades-old technology that places their sensitive and personal information at risk."
The systems are finally starting to receive upgrades. The Pentagon's nuclear messaging computer has been scheduled for a full replacement that will see the floppy disks dismissed by the end of the year. The Social Security systems are also being upgraded. The team has had to rehire retired former employees to train workers on how the COBOL programs operate.
The government is currently spending over 75 percent of its total technology budget on keeping the archaic computers running. Those costs are only going to increase over time as the systems run into problems and parts wear out. With a budget shortfall and a lack of expertise, it looks like many of these computers will still be operating in several years' time though.
More about Computers, Government, Us government, Federal, computer systems
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