In the wake of the events that took place during the Boston Marathon, there is certainly going to be an escalation in the number of discussions that center around national security, and ultimately the issue will hinge upon the question of privacy and civil liberty vs. appropriate and necessary national security measures. As officials scramble to return the city to normalcy and agencies work tirelessly to get answers, public policy questions will be next on the agenda. The question is no longer “what can we do to prevent such tragedies?” The questions have evolved over time to become “what are we willing to do, and what level of risk are we willing to accept in order to protect certain ‘unalienable rights’?”
NSA’s Utah Data Center Nears Completion
Nestled securely in the heart of Mormon country in northern Utah, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been constructing its newest data center compound. The reportedly $1.5 Billion, 1 million square foot facility is nearing the final stages of construction. According to the NSA’s website, as of February 28, the compound was nearly 90% complete, and is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2013.
The comprehensive specs of the compound may perhaps never be fully known, but in addition to the sheer size of the compound, we also know that an uninterrupted power supply is a key component. There are 60 diesel generators on site with enough capacity to fuel the facility at 100% for three (3) days.
Data storage capacity at the new facility will incredibly be measured in zettabytes. To put this into perspective, one zettabyte is roughly the storage equivalent of 62 Billion iPhone 5s stacked on top of one another, which would stretch out beyond the reach of the moon.
Big Brother, Privacy, & Security
The NSA says its new data center will focus on cyber security for the United States. In an attempt to address growing fears and speculations that civil liberties may be sacrificed in the greater goal of protecting the country, General Keith Alexander, the current director of the NSA, stated the NSA staff “take protecting your civil liberties and privacy as the most important thing they do, and securing this nation.”
That last part, “securing this nation,” is what has many people concerned. Can the two be mutually exclusive? Can civil liberties and privacy be protected and preserved while at the same time protecting the United States from otherwise unknown and unforeseen attacks? Is there a balance? Former NSA employee Thomas Drake cautioned, “The only way you can have perfect security is have a perfect surveillance state. That’s George Orwell. That’s 1984.”
Illustrating by holding up his thumb and forefinger, former NSA employee Bill Binney, who worked at the NSA over four decades, warned that the rights infringement capabilities and programs already in existence “make us that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”
Chief compliance officer at the NSA, John Delong, explained that there are very specific rules and regulations in place to safeguard American civil liberties and privacy. “These aren’t just, like, general policy pronouncements of ‘You shall protect privacy’,” Delong said. Also, it is important to note, that there is more in place than just internal regulations and oversight. Delong noted that there is a tremendous amount of oversight coming from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
With Big Data Comes Great Responsibility
With the events that took place during the running of the Boston Marathon, the need for answers becomes paramount, and the ability to analyze and react quickly becomes essential. Timing is everything, and the ability to process massive amounts of data quickly determines whether or not we can achieve an effective response time to such events. In the future, the abilities highlighted by the NSA in this new facility, from processing speeds and storage to code-cracking capabilities will be significant tools in the cyber battle to safeguard the United States from physical and virtual threats.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Where do we draw the line between having an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse of activity, to overstepping the bounds of privacy and civil liberties when it comes to eavesdropping and programs that allow for warrantless wiretapping of citizens?
As the nature of the world evolves, this discussion will continuously recycle and reinvent itself. Data centers may prove to be the most powerful weapon and/or tool of the 21st century. How we allocate their capabilities and regulate their reach will determine which function they serve at any give time.