Outside Salt Lake City, nestled on the outskirts of Bluffdale, lies the Utah Data Center, the new home for the NSA’s expanding information stockpile. The building, taking two years to construct and costing $1.7 billion, will soon host supercomputers meant to store data from emails, phone calls, Google searches, and more. By September, the Center will employ approximately 200 technicians and will be the center for the NSA’s cloud-based data.
The NSA claims it will not illegally eavesdrop on Americans, but has been vague beyond that. Some experts say the center will store data; others claim the center to have the capacity to analyze and break codes, permitting endless eavesdropping.
So, what is the purpose of this new center, and why are we just now paying attention to it? Reports and concerns regarding the Data Center aren’t new. James Bamford reported on it back in March 2012 for Wired Magazine. Quoting an unidentified senior intelligence official who at the time was involved with the program, the Center “is more than just a data center” and “is critical for breaking codes,” as much of the data that the center will handle – financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications – is heavily encrypted. It is the role of these super computers to unencrypt the information. What will then come of this unencrypted, for now, can only be left to the imagination.
Putting the copious legal issues aside, technological and security issues and complications with this data storage center are easily foreseeable. NSA chief General Keith Alexander stated last month that we are vulnerable to attacks similar to those that destroyed data on tens of thousands of computers in Saudi Arabia and South Korea this past year. On Wednesday he stated, “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being strongly defended, our critical infrastructure’s preparedness to withstand a destructive cyber attack is about a three based on my experience.” I guess it’s a good thing, then, that we are now cataloguing and storing copious amounts of private information in one centralized location. (Yes, that was sarcasm).
While much of the NSA surveillance remains unclear, one thing is for sure: Big Brother is listening. More on the NSA to come.
Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research