Report blasts U.S. for controlling nukes with floppy disks, but it’s not all bad

Floppy Disks
Brad Jones/Digital Trends
A new report released by the Government Accountability Office condemns the use of legacy computing equipment by federal agencies. In the fiscal year 2015, the United States government spent around 75 percent of its budget for IT spending on operations and maintenance, rather than modernization and enhancement.

This is just the current status of a trend that has been ongoing for several years now. Some of the most egregious examples of outdated tech include the use of Windows 3.1 as an operating system and a continued reliance on floppy disks.

“Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete,” reads the report. “Many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported.”

Using older hardware and software makes repairs and maintenance more difficult, not to mention more expensive. The argument being made is that federal agencies could make better use of their budgets by taking advantage of modern alternatives.

But the situation isn’t quite as clear-cut as it might seem.

The report is headlined by the fact the country’s nuclear system still makes use of computers from the 1970s and long-obsolete floppy disks. However, while these pieces of equipment might seem like potential weaknesses, their age is actually the reason they’re still in commission.

Last year, a representative of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command told Digital Trends that its “tried and true” floppy disks were still in use because they were dependable. “As you can imagine, we want to ensure the utmost in reliability and efficacy when operating such a critical weapon system,” said the source. “Therefore, if a system is ‘old,’ but still reliable, we are inclined to use it.”

There’s also a bizarre security benefit to such systems. A newer, more modern device might have unknown exploits or flaws that expose it to attack. The older systems, however, are isolated by their age. It’s difficult for potential attackers to compromise hardware that only interfaces through a floppy disk.

In cases like this, the stringent guidelines on procurement and testing can make bringing new equipment into the fold a long and laborious process. Both the old and the new school have their advantages and disadvantages — but the core of this issue is whether taxpayers could be getting a better return on their investment.

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