It’s complicated: updating old government technology
Oct 4, 2021

It’s complicated: updating old government technology

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Old technology makes the U.S. government vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks. And it still faces many obstacles to catch up.

The Senate held a hearing last week about the old, outdated computer systems that our governments often use to run their programs and what it’ll take to move things forward.

Those aging systems are a problem because when they break down or just can’t keep up with changing needs, it’s hard to fix them.

One example: Last spring, the state of New Jersey had to recruit people who knew the 60-year-old programming language COBOL, or common business-oriented language, in order to keep its unemployment system from going down.

Joseph Steinberg, a cybersecurity expert who’s worked with the government and author of “Cybersecurity for Dummies,” says money is one big issue. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Steinberg: Replacing some of these systems can be quite expensive, and there’s no visible benefit to taxpayers upfront. So if an elected official, for example, has to decide where to dedicate $50 million, and the choices are build new parks in several cities that people will enjoy and remember, versus replace a system that’s working, but we know could lead to problems down the line, there is an incentive in our political system to do the former.

Joseph Steinberg poses in front of a white background and rests his chin on his hand.
Joseph Steinberg (Courtesy Steinberg)

Marielle Segarra: That recent Senate hearing focused on what existing tools the government has, and one of the panelists actually quoted Teddy Roosevelt and said, “Do what you can with what you have, where you are.” So what does the government have?

Steinberg: I mean, I can’t list out every component of every system. But I do remember that just a few years ago, they found that one of the systems used to manage nuclear materials was still using floppy disks. And I believe they were 8-inch floppy disks, which are the disks that existed before the 5 1/4 [inch], which were before the 3 1/2 [inch disks]. So, you know, an old, old generation of floppy disks, and we’re talking about in the 2010s, so we are talking about some seriously outdated systems. That’s some of the concern, and it should put things in perspective.

Segarra: Well, I’m thinking to in terms of solutions, like, what can governments do here?

Steinberg: I mean, the main hurdle is budget. Governments, especially as you move into state and local, simply cannot afford to compete for resources. So that’s one thing. The second thing is there needs to be a commitment. We’ve seen many government projects that take many, many years to complete. If you start designing a system now, it takes seven or eight years to implement it. By the time you’ve implemented it, it’s outdated. These are projects that are going to need to move fast and as soon as they’re finished, are going to have to be maintained with an attitude of always looking at: Is the current system good enough? Or are there things we need to change? And I think that’s an ongoing process.

Segarra: Are there also vendor relationships involved that are hard to quit?

Steinberg: That can be the case. There sometimes are vendor relationships that may go back decades in terms of having a vendor that created the system and now supports it. In some cases, the vendors that created these systems don’t even exist anymore. And that’s the irony, that being supported by third parties or not even supported at all, or being supported only by internal resources, because the companies that supplied components or even the entire system have been, you know, gone from the scene for years or even decades. There may be relationships, but the reality is that it’s time to build relationships with newer companies or with the same companies for newer products.

Related Links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

We talked about New Jersey’s quest to find people who know COBOL. We interviewed Steinberg about that last year.

Turns out, a lot of state unemployment systems use COBOL. Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino did a story on that last month. As her source put it, “When you take an old car, and you patch it together enough times, it suddenly just collapses on the road.”

Time to buy a new car, New Jersey!

The IRS has had similar problems. The system it uses to process tax returns relies on programming language from the 1950s. That led to an outage on the IRS website on tax day a few years back that prevented taxpayers from filing online.

And Steinberg mentioned that the Defense Department was using a computer system that relied on floppy disks to manage the country’s nuclear arsenal. Here’s a story from the New York Times on that, and by the way, the department still uses the system, but has gotten rid of the floppy disks.

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