IRS systems crash on tax day

The tech failure at IRS may not be due to legacy IT, but rather to modern front-end systems that are typically hardened and tested in advance the annual filing deadline.

Shutterstock photo ID: photo ID: 245503636 By Mark Van Scyoc Sign outside the Internal Revenue Service building in downtown Washington, DC on December 26, 2014.
 

The IRS electronic filing system crashed in the early-morning hours of tax filing deadline day, the acting head of the tax agency announced in a congressional hearing. The crash affected the transmission of tax payments from paid providers and tax software companies like H&R Block and Turbo Tax.

"On my way over here this morning, I was told that a number of IRS systems are unavailable at the moment" said acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter at an April 17 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "We are working to resolve this issue and taxpayers should continue to file their returns as they normally would."

The tax agency emailed a statement to FCW saying, "Currently, certain IRS systems are experiencing technical difficulties. Taxpayers should continue filing their tax returns as they normally would." IRS officials did not respond to follow up questions.

The IRS posted an erroneous outage notice on its direct pay page indicating a planned outage from April 17, 2018 – Dec. 31, 9999. The notice explained that "your tax payment is due although IRS Direct Pay may not be available." That page was removed after screenshots of the page were posted in news articles.

"This is game-day for the IRS, and it seems the IRS can't get out of the locker room," Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) said at the hearing.

Later in the day on April 17, the IRS announced all filers would have until midnight on April 18 to file their tax returns. Officials also announced that systems had been restored.

Former IRS CTO Terry Milholland told FCW in an email that the tax day outage likely wasn't due to outmoded IT.

"The systems involved at the very front end are not typically ancient legacy systems, but state of the art technology systems," Milholland said. He didn't speculate what caused the outage, but said "it is extremely unlikely that it is a cyberattack given the architecture and defenses in place."

Milholland added that when he was at IRS, "the system was hardened…to handle the load" that comes on tax day. "I assume the hardening and testing occurred this year also but I do not know for sure," he said.

IRS does have legacy technology problems of long standing. The agency fields systems in outdated computer languages, relies on out-of-support mainframe and server technology and recently lost the last senior IT specialist hired under now-defunct critical pay authority to attract top private-sector tech talent.

Currently, the IRS is targeted by 2.5 million cyberattacks a day, with one million of these characterized as "sophisticated," Kautter said. These attacks are occurring in an environment where 59 percent of the technology is described as obsolete and 32 percent of the legacy systems are at least two updates behind, he said.

According to Kauttner's prepared testimony, 94.1 million individual returns were filed as of March 30 for the 2018 filing season, which opened Jan. 29, 2018. The IRS has processed 73.3 million refunds totaling more than $212.3 billion.

Kautter said the critical pay authority, which allows the tax agency to hire in six weeks and offer very high government salaries – up to the level of vice presidential pay – is called for in the IRS' fiscal year 2019 budget.

"If Congress wants the IRS to deploy 21st century technology to improve the services it provides, we must provide adequate resources to enable it to do so," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking member on the Government Operations subcommittee.

FCW senior staff writer Derek B. Johnson contributed reporting to this article.

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