During his Republican National Convention speech Thursday night, Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel told the crowd that when he was growing up in America in the 60s, "the future was limitless."
"It's hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech," he said. "But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks."
It may sound unbelievable, but he's right. When Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes toured a nuclear launch center in 2014, she found "a malfunctioning phone, floppy disks and an antique computer system without a monitor." And the floppy disks were "the really old, big ones," from the 70s era. They're part of the Strategic Automated Command and Control System, the Pentagon's communications system for issuing launch orders for intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts.
In other words, 60 Minutes found technology that reflected the time in which America's nuclear weapons program was being ramped up.
So you may be slapping your forehead now and thinking, "Man, this place is in trouble." But there's an upside to using really, really old tech. As Brian Fung pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, using floppy disks and being insulated from digital networks is a deterrent against hackers. Think about the launch systems being in the cloud and then think about the OPM hack. Not exactly reassuring. Wrote Fung:
There are parallels here to fiction, which can be just as instructive. In the 2004 hit TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” humanity comes under assault from robots that it created. Much of the human space fleet is taken by surprise, crippled by a robot-built computer virus that spreads from ship to ship thanks to the sophisticated networks linking the crafts together. The Galactica, an obsolete warship due to be mothballed, is one of the few to survive the initial surprise attack. Why? Because the Galactica’s systems were not part of the humans’ IT network, sparing it from the virus that disables the rest of the fleet. The lesson seems clear: Sometimes, newer is not better.
"Those older systems provide us some — I will say huge safety when it comes to some cyber issues that we currently have in the world," nuclear base commander Jack Weinstein told Lesley Stahl in 2014. "A few years ago we did a complete analysis of our entire network. Cyber engineers found out that the system is extremely safe and extremely secure on the way it's developed…We're not up on the Internet."
But according to a Government Accountability Office report released in May 2016 about "legacy systems" currently in use by the government, the Department of Defense is going off floppy disks in the near future.
"The agency plans to update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017," reported the GAO.
Let's hope that data storage solution involves a move to flash drives and not to the cloud.