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Feds Spending Tech Money on Floppy Disks and COBOL, Report Says

The government is spending about three-fourths of its technology budget maintaining aging computer systems, including platforms more than 50 years old in vital areas from nuclear weapons to Social Security. One still uses floppy disks.

In a report to be released Wednesday, nonpartisan congressional investigators say the increasing cost of maintaining museum-ready equipment devours money better spent on modernization.

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Despite a White House push to replace aging workhorse systems, the budget for modernization has fallen, and will be $7 billion less in 2017 than in 2010, said the Government Accountability Office. The report was provided to The Associated Press ahead of a House oversight committee hearing.

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GAO said it found problems across the government, not just in a few agencies. Among those highlighted in the report:

  • The Defense Department's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to U.S. nuclear forces. The system is running on a 1970s IBM computing platform, and still uses 8-inch floppy disks to store data.
  • Treasury's individual and business master files, the authoritative data sources for taxpayer information. The systems are about 56 years old, and use an outdated computer language that is difficult to write and maintain. Treasury plans to replace the systems, but has no firm dates.
  • Social Security systems that are used to determine eligibility and estimate benefits, about 31 years old. Some use a programming language called COBOL, dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Most of the employees who developed these systems are ready to retire and the agency will lose their collective knowledge," the report said. "Training new employees to maintain the older systems takes a lot of time."
  • Medicare's Appeals System, which is only 11 years old, but facing challenges keeping up with a growing number of appeals, as well as questions from congressional offices following up on constituent concerns. The report says the agency has general plans to keep updating the system, depending on the availability of funds.
  • The Transportation Department's Hazardous Materials Information System, used to track incidents and keep information relied on by regulators. The system is about 41 years old.

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GAO estimates that the government spent at least $80 billion on information technology, or IT, in 2015. However, the total could be significantly higher. Not counted in the report are certain Pentagon systems, as well as those run by independent agencies, among them the CIA. Major systems are known as "IT investments" in government jargon.