The tax agency's embrace of IBM in the 1950s helped drive down audit rates. It's still depending on the same code.
Though the IRS has periodically upgraded its computing system, today’s system is still running the same code, which was written nearly 60 years ago. Most of it is in the Assembly programming language, which the IRS itself has described as “antiquated” and “inflexible.” Worse, the number of programmers who can understand and maintain the code behind the Individual Master File (IMF) dwindles with every passing year. According to the Government Accountability Office, the IMF and its business counterpart (the BMF) are the oldest computing systems used by the federal government. (The runner-up in this dubious contest is the software used to coordinate the nation’s nuclear weapons.)
Plans to replace the IMF with a twenty-first-century equivalent known as CADE (Customer Account Data Engine) have faltered. The transition is now well behind schedule. As a consequence, the likelihood of a catastrophic computer failure during tax season increases with every passing year. That may not pose quite the same danger as an errant missile, but the prospect of lost refund checks, unnecessary audits, and other errors suggests that the time has come to bring the IRS into the 21st century.