Deep in Utah, among the beautiful landscape and polygamous sects, there’s a big stir going on, and it involves you. The NSA has broken ground on a datacenter of epic proportions (and I don’t just use that term because it sounds cool), involving yottabytes of data, a $40 million a year electricity bill and – oh yeah – nearly all of the electronic communication in the United States and abroad. Sounds spiffy, doesn’t it? Let’s meet the Utah Data Center.
In early January 2011, NSA deputy director Chris Inglis and others broke ground on the facility and spoke of a “…state-of-the-art facility designed to support the intelligence community… and protect the nation’s cybersecurity.” What they don’t mention is the fact that they will most likely be tracking all of the data that comes across their collection points as well. Where are those collection points?
As you can see, there are quite a few types of data being picked up from different locations. Satellites pick up almost everything on radio frequencies, from handheld two-way radios to cell phones (as well as communications from other nations), which is then passed on to Buckley AFB in Colorado where it is processed. NSA posts such as the ones in Georgia, Texas and Hawaii deal with intercepts from different areas, such as Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.
Domestic listening posts, such as the ones installed in telecoms in the post-9/11 hype, transmit data from major data hubs in the US. It is estimated that there are ten to twenty of these, and they weren’t always legal, but since 9/11, they’ve been given the green light (and the telecoms have been given amnesty for breaking the law prior to that). These listening posts perform “deep packet inspection” on all data zipping through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables, searching for specific words, phrases, addresses, phone numbers, etc. All of this is run by software created by Narus, a company that was purchased by Boeing, and is controlled from NSA headquarters. It automatically saves “suspicious” traffic and forwards a copy to the NSA. Overseas listening posts serve much the same purpose as domestic ones, but are much sneakier.
Once the data is sent to the blandly-named “Utah Data Center”, it is processed, decoded (as needed), and sent to analysts. Documents can be cracked with the aid of the Multiprogram Research Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which employs 300 scientists, computer engineers and other digital wizards. Analysts in the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade can access the data to piece together intelligence reports, which are forwarded to the Whitehouse, CIA, or Pentagon.
What does that mean to you? It means that the National Security Agency is building a giant data center in a geologically stable region, sucking 65 megawatts of power down to not only monitor global and domestic traffic, but to decrypt, analyze and store it. Of course, this data is supposed to be used to track high-interest groups, intercept transmissions between terrorist cells and generally defeat evil. If they weren’t reading this over my digital shoulder, with willing permission from my ISP, I’d be impressed.