Five of the most outdated IT system in the government

Five of the most outdated IT system in the government
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Parts of the federal government's $80 billion information technology budget are used to run 1970s-era computers, maintain outdated code and rehire former employees who are the only ones with the knowledge to operate them. 

The government's aging IT infrastructure has been understood for years and has received increased attention amid cyber security concerns.

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The White House has pushed lawmakers to adopt a $3.1 billion modernization fund that would update some of the oldest systems. And the Government Accountability Office (GAO) just came out with a report detailing some of the most outdated technologies still used today. 

“If we continue to do the same thing that we've been doing before, we're just making the situation worse,” Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott told lawmakers this week. 

The GAO report found that more than $61 billion is going toward operation and maintenance, leaving less for upgrades and modernization. GAO said that number should be in the $20 billions instead. 

Some point out that old IT does not necessarily mean it is outdated.

“Just because something has a particular age, doesn't necessarily mean that it is end of life,” said Beth Killoran, the chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Below are five of the starkest examples of outdated government IT

Defense's floppy disks

The Defense Department has a 53-year-old system that is used as a backup to send and receive emergency action messages from nuclear forces, including nuclear bombers and tanker-support aircraft. It runs on a 1970s-era computer system and uses 8-inch floppy disks, which can hold only a fraction of the storage space of modern flash drives. The GAO said replacement parts are difficult to find “because they are now obsolete.”

The Pentagon is planning to complete a replacement of the entire system by 2020. But Defense’s chief information officer Terry Halvorsen said that the floppy disks are not an urgent priority because the system is working fine: “The reliability factor on that system is where I need it to be…it is completely secure because it is a closed system.”

IRS's 1950s code

The master file at the Internal Revenue Service where the public’s taxes are assessed and refunds are generated is running on a 1950s “assembly language code.” The GAO says the computer language is fast, but it is usually only able to run on a single computer and is difficult to maintain. 

Because of the difficulty in syncing up the systems, the report said the IRS has trouble addressing refund fraud and risks making mistakes. The system, which costs $13.6 million per year to maintain, is supposed to be replaced, but there is no firm date. 

Social Security's former retirees

The Social Security Administration has rehired former employees who were some of the few that knew how to operate the complex system that determines retirement benefits and eligibility. The system is 31 years old and made up of 162 subsystems, with some running on a early 1960s-era programming language called COBOL. 

Much of the system was developed by the agency itself rather than contractors, and officials report that “most of the employees who developed these systems are ready to retire and the agency will lose their collective knowledge.” The agency has been modernizing the system over the years, but more than half of the budget is dedicated to maintaining it. 

State's ‘information security’ concerns 

A 26-year-old system at the State Department to track and validate visa information for nearly 55,000 foreign nationals each year is running graphic interface software that is no longer supported by the vendor. GAO noted the main challenges with State's aging technology is “information security and infrastructure concerns.” The agency is planning to start a replacement in 2018. But GAO said that it is replacing unsupported software with a new version, “which is also not supported.”

Transportation's unsupported software 

The cost of maintaining the Transportation Department's records on the shipment and maintenance of hazardous materials has increased because the agency must teach employees how to use some of the dated technology used to scan and maintain documents. The $6.1 million-per-year system uses a 2002 Microsoft platform and a 1990s program to create web pages. It also uses software that is no longer supported by the vendor to convert scanned images into machine readable text. The outdated portions of the system are supposed to be retired by 2018.