New NSA data centers will store decades' worth of electronic communication
By Carl Prine and Andrew Conte
Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
The National Security Agency's ongoing $2.4 billion data center expansions in Maryland and Utah will allow the government to easily store decades of electronic communications from the most expansive domestic surveillance program in the nation's history, experts told the Tribune-Review.
Once completed, NSA's data center expansions at Fort Meade in Maryland and the new Utah Data Center will tally 2.1 million square feet of secret space that draws on a combined 130 megawatts of electricity. To put that into perspective, think of three Consol Energy Centers filled with computers and offices using as much power as all the houses in Pittsburgh.
That's apparently what NSA thinks it will need to intercept, copy and mine the metadata from 1.7 billion daily phone calls, texts, emails and other electronic communications the agency reportedly tracks in a world where digital storage is getting cheaper to manufacture and maintain.
“As storage capacity increases, it requires less room and it comes at less cost,” explained Jim Bain, the associate director of the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on storage systems architectures.
Bain estimates the government will devote about a quarter of the space in these facilities — which cost about $250 million — to storing numbers that replicate the way people around the world live in human networks. The NSA is looking for networks that connect occasionally to suspected terrorists.
Consider every person with a telephone or computer as a “node” and electronic connections to other folks as “spokes.” NSA wants to store unexplored nodes and spokes so that when a terror suspect pops up, analysts can link him to other potential enemies of the United States and their sympathizers. The system works much like social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, on a much grander scale: a daily digital equivalent of about 134 million books.
“Let's think about Facebook,” said Bain. “It has billions of nodes and trillions of spokes. From what we've heard about the NSA collection, you would have trillions of nodes and 70 trillion or so spokes.”
The agency analyzes the data about networks and sends results to the FBI and other law enforcement, military and spy agencies.
“NSA has a pretty substantial storage environment, and on these kinds of things they would work out an arrangement with the FBI and use the appropriate authorities for what's being collected,” said Paul Kaminski, a member of the Director of National Intelligence's senior advisory group and chair of the Defense Science Board.
What's controversial is how the NSA intercepts and stores what appear to be mirrored copies of many daily phone calls and Internet tracking data. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits government from unreasonable searches and seizure, and critics say the digital metadata being collected mostly involves regular citizens, not terrorists or their sympathizers.
An ongoing 2008 lawsuit against NSA brought by nonprofit civil-liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of five California plaintiffs, Jewel v. NSA, relies on the testimony of whistle-blowers from telecom giant AT&T and the spy agency who described secret NSA rooms inside AT&T's San Francisco operations.
A “splitter cabinet” directed a copy of all digital traffic on AT&T lines to the espionage agency, and the other line carried the stream of AT&T's domestic and international communications to intended destinations.
Court filings revealed that similar “splitter” systems exist in Atlanta, Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. In 2008, Congress passed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that removed telecoms from lawsuit liability. The Jewel case targets the NSA, so it continues.
“It's also likely that this program has evolved over time and the NSA is using this data for more than what the phone companies ever intended,” said Richard Wiebe, a San Francisco attorney for the Jewel plaintiffs.
Wiebe said NSA programs resulted from “a mixture of contractor greed, bureaucratic turf-building and a few people at the agency and elsewhere in government who really do want to know what everyone is doing all the time.”
Statements by three NSA whistle-blowers in the Jewel case show that after 9/11 the agency shelved its “ThinThread” program, a data mining system that filtered out private caller information so the government couldn't infringe on privacy rights.
NSA instead chose TRAILBLAZER, a program favored by contractors and the congressional districts where they would build the project, according to Kathleen McClellan, the Government Accountability Project attorney in Washington who represented the whistle-blowers.
Eventually topping $1 billion in costs, TRAILBLAZER gave way to NSA's next generation of surveillance programs now in the news: PRISM, BLARNEY and BOUNDLESSINFORMATION. All three systems apparently were created without the filtering system to protect civil liberties of American telephone callers and Internet surfers.
“That's what everyone needs to understand. The NSA's programs didn't start out so eerie and Orwellian,” McClellan said. “The program that they would've been using, if they hadn't canceled it, was cheaper, more efficient and didn't trample on anyone's constitutional rights.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Job cuts at AGH part of ‘strategic’ process
- Redistricting spurs faceoff for Democratic state Reps. Molchany, Readshaw
- Assessment appeals draw Mt. Lebanon residents’ ire
- Newsmaker: Dr. Kyle Soltys
- Fox Chapel Area superintendent seeks rapport with students
- Qualifications of Peduto nominee for building inspection chief come up short
- Ex-Sandusky lawyer investigated in divorce case
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to hold annual public meeting March 26
- Allegheny County Democrats endorse several incumbents in primary
- Donor name to be stripped from Penn Hills library
- Context key to 2nd trial of Pittsburgh police officers in Homewood man’s arrest