The U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of your tax dollars on outdated tech

Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock

Everyone has an opinion on things the government should spend less money on. Here's one that people anywhere on the political spectrum can probably agree with: the government spends too much maintain old, out-of-date computer systems rather than modernizing its tech infrastructure. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that just 10 legacy systems being used by agencies within the federal government are costing taxpayers more than $337 million per year to keep running.

The report collected 65 computer systems submitted by agencies that are considered to be out of date. The GAO narrowed that list down to the top ten most at-risk systems, accounting for things like the age of the equipment, how important they are to the function of the agency and potential security risks they present.

The types of issues that these outdated systems prevent vary considerably. Some are less than a decade old but are already essentially obsolete (like that iPhone 5 that you've been refusing to upgrade). Others have been in use for as long as 51 years and, while they have received hardware upgrades in recent years, are still relying on a significant amount of heavy lifting from out-of-date and no longer supported software and other technology. Imagine purchasing the Mac Pro Apple just announced earlier this year, firing it up and loading it with the DOS operating system that powered the Apple II. That's basically what the government does.

Among the near-obsolete tech still involved in critical functions of the government is an Air Force computer system that supports the wartime readiness of aircraft. It is 14 years old and runs on COBOL, a programming language that is rarely taught anymore. It's not uncommon for old IT experts to be called in to deal with COBOL related issues, often at a premium. Another outdated system was found in the Interior Department, where an 18-year-old industrial system that is used to control dams and power plants relies on obsolete hardware that the original manufacturer doesn't even support anymore. Likewise, the software no longer receives updates from vendors. That means no security updates, patches or fixes with bugs arise.

The good news is that the agencies where those two systems are housed have modernization plans that will make a considerable difference in reliability, security and cost. The Navy system, in particular, should save $35 million annually once it is updated. These updates are typically great for improving the daily functions of an agency, too. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just announced a plan to update its software for the first time in 40 years, which is expected to vastly improve on existing weather tracking technology. The bad news is none of the other eight systems that made the GAO's list have paths to complete modernization set out. Half of the agencies on the list have zero plans to update any part of their outdated machinery and software.

That's troubling because the GAO report notes that “Project failure would be particularly detrimental in these 10 cases, not only because of wasted resources but also because it would prolong the lifespan of increasingly vulnerable and obsolete systems, exposing the agency and system clients to security threats and potentially significant performance issues." Essentially, the longer the government relies upon this outdated technology, the more likely something will go wrong.

The GAO has been harping on agencies to get up to date for years. In 2016, the agency revealed that while the federal government spends more than $80 billion on IT in 2015, about three-fourths of that ($61 billion) is spent on operations and maintenance of existing systems while just $19 million goes toward purchasing new ones. That includes things like the Navy forking over $9 million per year to Microsoft just to continue supporting Windows XP, an operating system that the company has considered obsolete in 2014.

While it may be more convenient for agencies to continue operating on the systems it knows, the potential for a catastrophic situation only increases the longer outdated machines remain a part of an agency's operations. Threats range from a potential security breach to a simple lack of expertise to fix the issue among newer IT support staff. A piece of hardware or software going haywire could be the difference between essential services being delivered and a full-on, nationwide crisis. Put into context, the cost of an upgrade is significantly cheaper than the cost of a meltdown.