John Oliver: Why do floppy disks control nuclear weapons?

The HBO comedian wonders why the hardware and software guarding the United States' nuclear warheads are so out of date.

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Oliver twisted in concern. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

We've all gone nuclear in our time.

Something sets us off and we react. People do it. Countries do it. John Oliver does it on a weekly basis.

Last night on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," he screamed, mused, whined and, in his way, marveled at some of the technological problems that surround America's 4,804 nuclear warheads.

You might wonder why America has so many. It's not as if our country has 4,804 enemies in the world. Well, not 4,804 enemy nations, at least.

Oliver was aghast that some nuclear weapons are not being curated in what might be termed a secure manner. Some of the hardware seems rather too easy to access.

One element that moved Oliver was a computer at a nuclear silo in Wyoming. It's ready to receive the president's red-button signal to launch. As a "60 Minutes" report from earlier this year points out, it uses floppy disks -- big ones.

(For younger readers, floppy disks were like very bendy CDs that, once upon a time, nerds found exciting and real people found very maddening.)

How could it be that such deadly weapons weren't, at least, protected with software that's a touch more sophisticated? Could this be a double-bluff, as malicious hackers are mostly in their teens and have no idea how to remotely access a floppy disk?

It seems, though, that there might be certain other technological failures in our nuclear protections.

Oliver calls up another report about an air force base in Montana, where a nuclear launch officer allegedly decided to text the answers to a proficiency test to other officers. At least texts are secure, aren't they? Or would he have been better off using Snapchat?

Oliver theorizes that, when it comes to nuclear weapons, "people just don't give enough of a s*** anymore."

If that's true, "people" might even include those who are tasked with ensuring that these weapons are kept both safe and in working order.

Oliver suggests that if America reduced the number of weapons, it might be able to invest in software that's more sturdy and therefore less floppy.

As so often happens with such things, though, it's only when there's a disaster that the cry will be: "How could we let this happen?"

Because we're mentally floppy, that's why.

 

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