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The U.S. Nuclear Program Still Uses Eight-Inch Floppy Disks

Technological change takes forever to boot up

It's so hard to quit you. (Lezh/iStock)
smithsonian.com

Where does the United States store data for its nuclear systems? If the question brings to mind visions of high-tech storage centers, cloud computing or solid-state drives, think again—as Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports for the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of Defense still uses floppy disks for its Strategic Automated Command and Control System.

The system, which serves as the primary means for transmitting emergency messages to the country’s nuclear missile forces and other worldwide offensive and defensive systems, still relies on eight-inch floppy disks that hold 80 kilobytes of data. According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the program relies on an IBM Series I computer from the 1970s.

“The system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” a Pentagon spokesperson told the Agence France Presse. She added that by 2017, the disks will be replaced by “secure digital devices” and that, by 2020, the Pentagon will fully replace the command system.

And at this point, floppy disks offer something else to the defense industry: security. Since the technology is so old and few modern machines can handle them, floppy disks are strangely secure. In 2014, General Jack Weinstein told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl that DOD “cyber engineers” had determined that “the system is extremely safe and extremely secure the way it’s developed.” At the time, Smithsonian.com tracked the growth of the nuclear stockpile, much of which is as old as the disks themselves. 

When it comes to critical government functions, floppy disks may be just the tip of the obsolete tech iceberg. The GAO report also reveals that the U.S. Treasury has systems that are 56 years old, and ancient IBM mainframes can be found in other agencies. And then there’s the Social Security Administration: Its retirement benefits systems run on COBOL—one of the first programming languages ever written. The language was popularized by the inimitable Grace Hopper in the late 1950s. The agency reported re-hiring retired employees to maintain the systems. 

It turns out that the military is not the only organization that uses floppy disks, which were phased out for good in the early 2000s after CD devices took precedence. As Brad Jones reports for Digital Trends, many existing industrial machines like some embroidery machines, ATMs and aviation technology were built around the disks—and integrating new technology into old machinery is expensive, labor-intensive and sometimes impossible. Just ask New York’s MTA: Much of its subway system relies on machines dating to the 1930s or earlier.

Whether you think old machinery is fascinating or just plain scary, there’s no denying that for some organizations, technological change takes a really long time to boot up. 

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