Big Brother is coming: NSA's $1.9 billion cyber spy center a power grab

Published: Sunday, Dec. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

In his book "The Shadow Factory," Bamford cites an already outdated study by the University of California at Berkeley that measured global data trends. In 2002, there were 1.1 billion telephone lines in the world carrying nearly 3.8 billion minutes — approximately 15 exabytes of data. An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes. Cell phones added 2.3 exabytes of data, while the Internet that year added another 32 petabytes to the bubbling information pot.

Suffice it to say that seven years hence, it's grown to a tsunami-size information wave that's being added to daily, which is where the NSA's robust sifting technologies of today and the future come into play.

"Once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite 'libraries,' the data are then analyzed by powerful info weapons, supercomputers running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us may be — or may one day become — a terrorist," Bamford writes. "In the NSA's world of automated surveillance on steroids, every bit has a history, and every keystroke tells a story."

Bigger Brother, if you will, once only found in literature and the lexicon, has now taken up full-time residency in our daily lives.

Power shortage

The Baltimore Sun first reported in 2006 that the NSA was unable to install new supercomputers and other sophisticated equipment at Fort Meade for fear of "blowing out the electrical infrastructure." The NSA and Fort Meade are Baltimore Gas & Electric's largest customers, consuming roughly the amount of power that the city of Annapolis does, the Sun reported.

In 2005, the NSA took its first step to decentralize information gathering and storage by making known it would convert a former 470,000-square-foot Sony computer-chip building in San Antonio, Texas, into a satellite data facility. The Texas Cryptologic Center, as it's being called, reportedly rivals the nearby Alamodome in size.

Camp Williams was announced to be the next such NSA facility, although back-channel chatter is now questioning if San Antonio is being shoved aside in favor of increasing the Utah center's role.

"I've heard the San Antonio deal is dead," said someone who closely follows the NSA but asked not to be identified. "I was told that given current budgetary constraints that the NSA was basically told they could have one, but not both centers, and it looks like they've chosen Utah."

Should that be the case, no one apparently has told the NSA, which would be ironic for an agency that prides itself on knowing everything.

"Plans for the NSA Texas Cryptologic Center are continuing," wrote NSA public affairs specialist Marci Green in a recent e-mail. "(The) NSA has maintained a presence in San Antonio over the past two decades and plans to continue to have strong presence in the area."

Hiding in plain sight

A long-running joke has been that NSA actually stands for "No Such Agency."

But lurking in the shadows becomes trickier when you've grown into the 5,000-pound gorilla. Thus, as the scope of the NSA increases, the agency is continually perfecting its ability to hide in plain sight by labeling much of what does "classified" and creating a nearly impenetrable veil of secrecy.

But maintaining that concealment breeds fear and paranoia, especially among conspiracy theorists and the similar-minded.

Much of the Web buzz surrounding the Utah data center has revolved around how banks of supercomputers inside the facility might be used for intrusive data mining and monitoring of telephone conversations, e-mails and Web site hits, in the name of national security.

"While the NSA doesn't engage in traditional wiretapping, which is the bailiwick of the FBI and other enforcement agencies, it does collect signals intelligence (sigint) by intercepting streams of foreign electronic communications containing millions and millions of telephone calls and e-mails," writes Bamford. The NSA feeds intercepts through its computers that screen for selected names, telephone numbers, Internet addresses and trigger words or phrases. Flagged information gets highlighted for further analysis.

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