July 31, 2013
Things have been pretty hectic of late so you probably didn’t notice that the National Security Agency (NSA) is only a couple months away from opening their new mega data center in Utah. While it’s not going to be a big as many have predicted—that collective sigh of relief you heard in the background is the guys from Google who thought they might have some competition in the personal data sweepstakes—it still has what we in the industry technically refer to as a “sh*tload” of storage capacity. A recent article in Forbes magazine, that includes the floor plan for this new metadata marvel, offers some speculation by experts on just how much information will become privy to the eyes of even the most disgruntled NSA employee.
According to the article, the actual raised floor space of the facility is only going to be around 100,000 square feet. I myself am somewhat disappointed in this figure as I think that it indicates that we are rapidly falling behind the Russians and the Chinese in the raised floor race. Sure they’re both totalitarian regimes, but as Americans shouldn’t we insist on being number one? Due to the recent Snowden unpleasantness—who apparently is still trying to relive the Gulag experience by hanging out in Moscow International Airport existing on borscht and using a rolled up “I love Putin and Vodka” t-shirt as a pillow—folks were naturally a little concerned about our domestic spying capability and so initial storage estimates now appear to be a little high.
Wired magazine estimated the site’s capacity to be measurable in Yottabytes—did the standards body that came up with these terms also write the last Star Trek movie—while National Public Radio offered up a more restrained figure of five (5) zettabytes. For those of you who forgot your scorecards at home, the proper reference for these figures is: 1 Yottabyte = 1,000 zettabytes = 1,000 exabytes = 1 billion petabytes = 1 trillion terabytes. Although these may seem like the future goals for the national debt, they represent a whole lot of data. The expert that Forbes used to provide some perspective felt that, at most, the site could hold only 12 exabytes, give or take a terabyte or two. Since 400 terabytes is enough to hold all the books ever written in any language, there is no need for us to worry someone might be left out in the agency’s unrelenting quest to gather the nation’s call information. While this may be disturbing to some of you, Facebook considers this data amalgamation effort to be the work of rank amateurs.
I’m sure that by now you are asking yourself what these figures mean in more practical terms. Rest assured that the diminished scale of the Utah facility means that even the most ambitious spook is going to have to scale back their plans a bit. Based on the earlier estimates that Forbes’ referenced, some experts believed that the site could contain 24-hour video and audio recordings of every person in the country for an entire year. While this represents an unprecedented amount of insight into the lives of average Americans, when you think about the way most of us live, doesn’t this mean that someone is going to have to sift through a lot of wedding and bar mitzvah footage in their hunt for bad guys? Talk about your thankless jobs. The good news is that due to the diminished scale of the data center, it will only be able to retain video and audio for just 13 million of us. Obviously, these guys are going to have to develop some type of selection criteria. In a society obsessed with the likes of untalented famous people like the Kardashians, I suspect that folks will be clamoring to get into this small, select body. Maybe they can do something like American Idol, and the rest of us can vote to deprive our fellow citizens of their dream of becoming the object of covert surveillance.
For the more paranoid among you, this news that the capabilities of the NSA’s new data center have been vastly overhyped probably won’t relieve your fears that someone is watching you. If that’s the case, then you might want to consider a fortified bunker in Idaho as your next mailing address. For the rest of us, we know that our government only wants what’s best for us and, what does the collection of a little phone information really mean to the relationship between the citizen and the state anyway? As a write this blog, I am looking out my window secure and proud that I live in a country where the government is always looking out for me. Oh, look—it’s a black helicopter…