America’s Nukes Are Protected by 50-Year-Old Floppy Disks

Floppy disk, as the data bearer, now belongs to the history of computing. (CTK via AP Images)
Kalousek Rostislav — AP

If you were worried about nuclear weapons before, just want until you hear what the U.S. government has to say about them.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (PDF) recently reviewed the use of technology by federal agencies. While not everything in the report was so bad, there was one, staggering finding: 8-inch floppy disks are currently being used for the country’s nuclear arms operations.

“The Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces,” the GAO wrote in its report. The agency added that the “operational functions” relate to everything from “intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts.”

“This system runs on an IBM (IBM) Series/1 Computer—a 1970s computing system—and uses 8-inch floppy disks,” the agency reported, adding that the age of the system is 53 years old.

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For those who are younger than 53 and used to being able to store massive amounts of data on a small USB drive, 8-inch floppy disks are really, really old. In fact, they were the first versions of floppy disks developed in the 1960s and made commercially available in 1971. The disks could hold precious little data and the computers they worked with, IBM’s Series 1, had just 16 kilobytes of memory, an 8-inch green monitor with a resolution of 25 x 80 pixels, and could support two floppy disks capable of storing one megabyte of data.

The U.S. government was one of the most active buyers of the IBM Series/1 Computer, which was used heavily by the U.S. Marine Corps, among other divisions. However, while the world has turned to massive data centers and dramatically more powerful computers with gigahertz of processing power and terabytes of storage, it seems the Defense Department didn’t quite get the memo that perhaps there was something better out there.

Then again, it’s hard to say whether the old technology is truly worse than the new. As TechInsider, which earlier reported on the story, notes, a special aired on CBS News in 2014 looking at the country’s “land-based nuclear missile fields.” While it showed the outdated hardware, the reason for sticking with it seemed rational: the Defense Department believed it to be less likely to be hacked than newer technologies. So, rather than upgrade, the agency stuck with technology it knew worked and was safe.

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But now, things have seemingly changed. In its report, the GAO reported that the 8-inch floppy disks will be a thing of the past as the Defense Department looks to upgrade to new (and hopefully just as safe) technology.

“The agency plans to update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017,” the agency wrote.

One other tidbit from the study: The Department of Treasury uses a 56-year-old system to store all individual and business income taxpayer information. The GAO says the Treasury Department does not yet have plans to update its system, though it’s considering making a move.

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