In FAA and across federal government, outdated software needs fixing

The Federal Aviation Administration’s 30-year-old hazard-notification system recently had its first crash ever to cause a nationwide grounding of flights. The incident is focusing a bright light on the outdated federal computer systems that, IT experts say, are increasingly vulnerable to failure and cyberattack.

The Internal Revenue Service is busy trying to update the code of its Individual Master File, which it uses to process tax returns. Dating from the 1960s, it is one of the government’s oldest systems still operating. Congress has made efforts over the years to address legacy systems, including the Modernizing Government Technology Act in 2017.

Why We Write This

Human error may have been the cause of the computer glitch that briefly grounded all US airline flights last week. But the incident pointed to deeper challenges of keeping key software up to date.

The challenge is that voters apparently want – and politicians certainly deliver – government projects that are tangible. Spending $1 million on a park, for example, is much easier politically than replacing an old and obscure computer system that could eventually fail, says cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg.

Gregory Dawson, a digital security expert at Arizona State University, urges an all-out government effort, like its recent pandemic vaccine push.

“This is not going to be the only critical infrastructure system that is going to break down like this,” he says of the FAA. “We have to be able to address it.”

When his 6 am flight from Palm Springs, California, to Pittsburgh, was delayed last week Chris Goranson got worried. “I thought something pretty bad must have happened,” says the professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and former federal employee working on modernizing computer systems.

There were no reasons given for the Jan. 11 delay. And the trouble seemed to be spreading nationwide. Although Mr. Goranson experienced only a 90-minute delay in California and another half-hour delay on his connecting flight in Dallas, some 1,300 flights were canceled and another 10,000 were delayed.

The culprit: a computer glitch at the Federal Aviation Administration, which caused a decision to temporarily ground all flights.

Why We Write This

Human error may have been the cause of the computer glitch that briefly grounded all US airline flights last week. But the incident pointed to deeper challenges of keeping key software up to date.

The failure of its 30-year-old hazard-notification system – its first such crash – is focusing a bright light on the outdated computer systems still running at the FAA and beyond. Federal government agencies are relying on thousands of information technology systems that are decades old, expensive to maintain, and vulnerable to failure and cyberattack, IT experts say. And the problem of legacy systems keeps getting worse as technology speeds ahead and hackers become more sophisticated.

“This is not going to be the only critical infrastructure system that is going to break down like this,” says Gregory Dawson, a clinical professor at Arizona State University who is also a consultant and author of a forthcoming book, “Digitalization and Sustainability: Advancing Digital Value.” “We have to be able to address it.”

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