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Friday, 17 June 2016

U.S. nuclear codes

A few weeks ago, an American friend called me about a draft blog on which I had asked him to comment. In that conversation, he also suggested 2 topics for forthcoming blogs, of which one really surprised me: the recent news about high maintenance cost of 1970s technology and in particular for the US nuclear codes on floppy disks.

BBC, 26 May 2016: “The US nuclear weapons force still uses a 1970s-era computer system and 8-inch floppy disks, a government report has revealed. The Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon was one of several departments where "legacy systems" urgently needed to be replaced. The report said taxpayers spent $61bn (£41bn) a year on maintaining ageing technologies. It said that was three times more than the investment on modern IT systems. The report said that the Department of Defence systems that co-ordinated intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft "runs on an IBM Series-1 Computer - a 1970s computing system - and uses eight-inch floppy disks".

Actually, I am not even sure if I have ever seen such huge 8 inch floppy disks. These floppies almost resemble 10 inch classic vinyl music records. The earliest and biggest floppies that I recall were 5.25 inch, while using a “portable” IBM PC clone, called Hyperion. Later the rather "flexible" 5.25 inch version was replaced by a solid 3.5 inch version. I suppose that my kids (21 and 18) have never even seen any floppy disk, and neither the audio cassettes which we played in our car and used for storage of computer games.

My American friend probably assumed that I would regard this outdated technology as preposterous. Well, I did not. The beauty of this technology is that it is entirely offline. Nowadays, anything online is highly susceptible of breaches by domestic or foreign hackers. Considering the age of the average hacker, it's highly unlikely that they have ever seen 1970s technology. Even their fathers are unlikely to have seen – or possessed - that technology.

I compared the Pentagon situation with the recent SWIFT hacks. To date, at least 3 banking hacks are known: Ecuador ($9 million in January 2015), Vietnam (failed attempt in December 2015) and then a big one in Bangladesh ($81 million in February 2016). The suspects are North Korean hackers (eg, Fortune). Due to a clerical or typing error, the actual Bangladesh heist of $81 million was far less than the $1 billion that was planned.

My American friend finally agreed that this outdated Pentagon technology is probably much safer than most state-of-the-art technology. Ironically, outdated technology gives (an) additional layer(s) of safety and security. Hence, I have sympathy for the official US response: “This system remains in use because, in short, it still works," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt Col Valerie Henderson told the AFP news agency” (BBC).

Since 2015, another discussion on the U.S. nuclear codes has emerged: Would you trust Donald Trump with access to nuclear weapons? At first in the Republican debates (eg, Independent, Politico) and more recently also by Democrat Hillary Clinton (eg, Politico). Unfortunately, it's not even a hypothetical discussion. Politico: "If he were president, Donald Trump [] would be free to launch a civilization-ending nuclear war on his own any time he chose".

The prospect of Donald Trump being US President and being able to decide on using nuclear codes is just too much, and hopefully also for the clear majority of US voters on 8 November 2016.

Sometimes it's not the technology that is most scary, sometimes it's just the human touch.

Bruce Springsteen – Human Touch (1992) - artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Oh girl that feeling of safety you prize
Well it comes with a hard hard price
You can't shut off the risk and the pain

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