James Bamford on the NSA
James Bamford—author of The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America writes about the NSA’s new data center in Utah as he reviews another book: The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency:
Just how much information will be stored in these windowless cybertemples? A clue comes from a recent report prepared by the MITRE Corporation, a Pentagon think tank. “As the sensors associated with the various surveillance missions improve,” says the report, referring to a variety of technical collection methods, “the data volumes are increasing with a projection that sensor data volume could potentially increase to the level of Yottabytes (1024 Bytes) by 2015.” Roughly equal to about a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text, numbers beyond Yottabytes haven’t yet been named. Once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite “libraries,” the data are then analyzed by powerful infoweapons, supercomputers running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us may be—or may one day become—a terrorist.
Aid concludes that the biggest problem facing the agency is not the fact that it’s drowning in untranslated, indecipherable, and mostly unusable data, problems that the troubled new modernization plan, Turbulence, is supposed to eventually fix. “These problems may, in fact, be the tip of the iceberg,” he writes. Instead, what the agency needs most, Aid says, is more power. But the type of power to which he is referring is the kind that comes from electrical substations, not statutes. “As strange as it may sound,” he writes, “one of the most urgent problems facing NSA is a severe shortage of electrical power.” With supercomputers measured by the acre and estimated $70 million annual electricity bills for its headquarters, the agency has begun browning out, which is the reason for locating its new data centers in Utah and Texas.
Of course, that yottabyte number is hyperbole. The problem with all of that data is that there’s no time to process it. Think of it as trying to drink from a fire hose. The NSA has to make lightning-fast real-time decisions about what to save for later analysis. And there’s not a lot of time for later analysis; more data is coming constantly at the same fire-hose rate.
Bamford’s entire article is worth reading. He summarizes some of the things he talks about in his book: the inability of the NSA to predict national security threats (9/11 being one such failure) and the manipulation of intelligence data for political purposes.