Governments are notorious for their inability to catch up to the latest advancements in technology except where it affects mission-critical operations. This couldn’t be truer than in the 21st century, where within its first ten years the world has witnessed a massive transition into broadband, the advent of smartphones, and the rise of cheap bandwidth and storage.
This fast-paced progress has created a few challenges that have been particularly hard on the U.S. government, which in September 2016 has decided to appoint a retired general as its first cybersecurity chief. While there are many areas in which the U.S. government has very powerful technology working for it, there are also a lot of things that appear out of place in a country that boasts the world’s highest GDP.
1: Nuclear Facilities Still Rely on Floppy Disks (from the 70s)
When the floppy disk first appeared in 1973 in IBM’s 3740 data entry system, it measured an enormous eight inches in width. The disk did not see widespread use until the mid-70s when the Series/1 16-bit “minicomputer” came along.
This same computer (and the floppy disks needed to transport data from it) are still being used for the government’s nuclear command and control systems. This might sound silly, but it makes a little bit of sense when you think about the fact that newer systems are easier to hack remotely (if they’re connected to the Internet, of course). Still, maintaining hardware that isn’t even produced anymore (IBM withdrew the Series/1 from marketing back in 1988) is very expensive since replacement parts are hard to find.
2: The Treasury Department Still Uses Assembly Code
First making its appearance in 1949, assembly code (ASM) has influenced the way computers operate today. It is the granddaddy of every other computer programming language and is still used to some extent when making kernel level software.
The U.S. Treasury Department, however, still relies on it heavily. No one got around to changing this status quo, meaning that government employees tweaking the software that runs this particular department have to contend with code that looks like the following.
The treasury’s “Business Master File,” which is used to track tax data for individual businesses, encounters the same problem. In addition to working on a very dated programming language, this particular record runs on a mainframe system less powerful than the first iPhone and larger than the average bedroom.
Don’t get me wrong: ASM is just as efficient (and in most cases, more so) as its successors, but the fact that it is very convoluted and extremely difficult to program with makes it more trouble than it’s worth in this particular case.
3: Veterans Affairs Uses COBOL For Its Most Important Functions
Invented in the late 50s for the purpose of making it easier to do business with computers, COBOL is a programming language that continues to run some of the most important aspects of the VA department within the United States.
Although more updated versions have still found their way into business circles, the VA continues to use the version it first adopted when it first began to use computers. Everything from human resources to veterans’ benefits continues to use a system that was implemented back when Elvis Presley was still recording albums.
4: The Department of Transportation Relies on Classic ASP.NET to Track Hazardous Materials
Active Server Pages was an add-on to IIS (Microsoft’s web-hosting platform) that allowed developers to create websites that worked well with Microsoft products. The plan didn’t necessarily pan out (most websites rely on PHP) probably because of the fact that hosts would have to pay licensing fees to use IIS.
The Department of Transportation doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo since they continue to use classic ASP even though Microsoft has already stopped supporting it. This presents a number of security issues, which is a significant concern when you take into account the fact that this system tracks and reports on hazardous materials transported across the country.
The good news is that the Government Accountability Office states that there are plans in place to replace this system entirely by the year 2018.
While it may be true that governments tend to struggle to catch up to technology, it is equally true that we shouldn’t necessarily be in a hurry to fix what isn’t broken. In some of the above cases, I blame the fact that the government has been using computers since their advent to store and transfer information. Of course there are going to be tiny parcels of it that will use the same computers they were founded with.
Compare the situation to that of European nations: although they are a bit more up to date on their systems in general, this can largely be chalked up to the fact that most governments had an inherent distrust of computers until the late 90s. Fun fact, by the way: the National Health Service in the UK still uses Windows XP.
What’s the oldest computer you’ve seen in a government building? Tell us in a comment and don’t forget to specify the country!