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20 June 2017

Department of Defense still uses 8-inch floppy disks and other disturbing details from Jared Kushner’s speech

I don’t care what Jared Kushner’s voice sounds like. It’s what he said that blew me away.

The globetrotting head of the White House Office of American Innovation broke his cipher-like silence on Monday to offer a stunning outline of the federal government’s recidivistic tech tendencies.

Chief among them is that the U.S. Department of Defense still uses 8-inch floppy disks, a stored media technology retired by most businesses back in the early 1980s. At my first job at a tiny weekly newspaper in 1986, we used 8-inch floppies and a Digital Equipment Corp. system to back up the paper’s terminal-based production system. 

Even then, it was considered comically out of date and was rapidly supplanted by desktop computers and the smaller 5.25-inch floppy. By the mid 1990’s we were all using 3.5-inch media, and then CD-ROMs. Today, we store in the cloud.

But not the U.S. government. Pockets of it, according to Kushner, who delivered most of the stats in an unemotional monotone, are using systems that are between 39 and 56 years old.

This is not fake news. These are not alternative facts. Kushner plucked many of them from existing government reports, most of which date back to the Obama era.

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Some of the mind-bending details comes from a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, which notes that the Defense Department’s use of antiquated media is a “a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces.”

The report details the ages of numerous agency systems (including those used by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of the Treasury, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Justice) and the assessment that many are running COBOL, a programming language developed in the 1950s.

Many services still use paper forms, including, according to Kushner, 90 percent of healthcare forms. Even those documents that are electronic suffer behind legacy systems and bureaucracy.

Kushner noted how over 500 Veteran’s Affairs documents are “not accessible on modern browsers” and that a 1980 “Paper Reduction Act” is so outdated that it didn’t even account for computerized systems or the Internet, yet has domain over all documents filed with the government online.

Kushner also outlined some aggressive plans to move the government’s 6,100 data centers and 1.6 million civilian email accounts to cloud-based services. That could save the government millions of dollars, but will, naturally, raise security concerns, since many of these agencies deal with the personal data of millions of Americans.

The data center initiative carries forward some work begun in the Obama administration, which for years sought to identify and consolidate the federal government’s data centers which, at one, time counted near 11,000. 

Kushner’s dispassionate delivery of some truly disturbing information stands in stark contrast to how his boss (and father-in-law) might have tweeted the news:

“DoD running 50-year-old technology to run NUCLEAR opps: DISASTER!”

As head of the White House Department of Innovation, Kushner oversees a somewhat calmer group of tech geeks, many of whom have temporarily left the private sector to join the government’s U.S. Digital Services (USDS)

Formed by President Barack Obama in 2014, the group is currently led by Acting Director Matt Cutts. The former Googler posted a USDS update on Medium on Friday, outlining the work they continue to do under the Trump administration.

The USDS will take center stage this week as CEOs from some of tech’s biggest companies, including Apple, converge on the White House for Kushner’s American Technology Round Table to offer insight on modernizing the federal government.

The group does appear somewhat above the political turmoil that’s consuming the Trump administration, dealing with IT and tech issues that have admittedly spanned multiple administrations and show no signs of disappearing without their help.

And it appears that Kushner is on the same page. No matter who you voted for, it’s hard to argue with the retirement of half-century old technology used with some of our nation’s most sensitive and important systems.

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