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New NSA data centers will store decades' worth of electronic communication

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
An aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach.

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.”

Andrew Conte and Carl Prine are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Prine at 412-320-7826 or Reach Conte at 412-320-7835 or

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