The history of the U.S. Government’s use of computers dates back generations. So, too, apparently, do many of the computers now in use. In testimony before Congress on May 25, GAO’s David A. Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, described just how old some of the government’s most vital systems are. The President’s 2017 budget contains over $89 billion in expenditures on IT, and much of that sum is to ensure that legacy computer systems remain operational.

Should the United States need to nuke an enemy, the operational functions of our nuclear force are written on a series of eight inch floppy disks. The nation’s most important weapons are controlled by technology that became outmoded in 1986.

Taxpayers can rest assured because the IRS processes your data on computer systems that are at least 56 years old, according to the GAO. The system is written in assembly language code which is difficult to maintain. The IRS has no plans to update their systems.

Veterans can also rest easy since their benefits are processed by a suite of COBOL language programs. The systems are more than 53 years old and the VA has no plans to modernize them.

Uncle Sam’s Antiquated OS

If you are one of those computer users that Microsoft has been nagging to upgrade to Windows 10, the federal government understands. According to the GAO “Commerce, Defense, Treasury, HHS, and VA reported using 1980s and 1990s Microsoft operating systems that stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago.”

Is this a new problem? Well, in December 1994, UPI reported the GAO was canceling $18 billion in computer systems purchases. Roger W. Johnson, then head of GSA, stated “The taxpayers are not getting a good return on their investments in these products …”

In 2002, the New York Times described the federal IT system as “a rat’s nest of technology …”. One example, drawn from the Department of Defense, is “how to handle a single piece of information: the format for names. The format is not consistent even within the department, and information officers are deliberating over whether to spell names out, use a middle initial or just list the first and last names.”

Amid the increased security in the aftermath of September 11, a variety of measures were mandated concerning IT, and especially the hardening of Windows systems. Network Information and Technology News reported in March, 2007, that “Few federal agencies have fully implemented, CIS, DISA, or NSA hardening guidelines, even though many have required it for years.” The result was “a lot of wasted time, effort, and money.”

In 2014, William Greenwalt, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, called the situation  “computer chaos”. That was the title of the report he authored in 1994 for Senator William Cohen, and he saw little changed in 20 years.

In Mr. Powner’s GAO testimony, he states “In the last 6 years, we made approximately 800 recommendations to OMB and multiple agencies to improve effective and efficient investment in IT. As of October 2015, about 32 percent of these recommendations had been implemented.” If you want your tax refund or your VA benefits, or if you have the need to launch the nukes, you will still have to rely upon technology built and written for your grandfather.

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Charles Simmins brings thirty years of accounting and management experience to his coverage of the news. An upstate New Yorker, he is a freelance journalist, former volunteer firefighter and EMT, and is owned by a wife and four cats.