Wired: NSAs New Data Collection Center and Details on Its Public Eavesdropping Capabilites

(Photo: Wired)

In the heart of Utah’s desert, the National Security Agency is well underway on a project that has been called the nation’s largest, most expensive cyber-security project. Naturally, almost all details about the building’s soon-to-be inner activities are highly classified and no one is talking — officials in Bluffdale where it is being built and the nearby Salt Lake City are kept in the dark. Still, Wired’s Threat Level has gotten some details on the building and provides analysis on some of its expected activity.

Wired describes that the building is ironically and “blandly” named the Utah Data Center. When completed in Sept. 2013 it will house four 25,000 square foot halls of servers, among other things. Wired states that the cost for the project is estimated at $2 billion.

Here’s some of the data center’s purpose:

Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”

Wired reports that the data center will store trillions of “words and thoughts and whispers” swirling on the Web. It states that “[to] those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.” In addition to public website data storage, Wired reports that it will seek out and house information on the “deep web:”

“The deep web contains government reports, databases, and other sources of information of high value to DOD and the intelligence community,” according to a 2010 Defense Science Board report. “Alternative tools are needed to find and index data in the deep web … Stealing the classified secrets of a potential adversary is where the [intelligence] community is most comfortable.”

Even with data storage as its publicized purpose, Wired reports that an official involved with the program has said “this is more than just a data center.” It hopes to be the ultimate code-cracking facility:

According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

Wired reports that the facility’s security system — an antiterrorism protection program — alone costs $10 million. The fence surrounding the building will be able to stop a 15,000 pound vehicle driving at 50 miles per hour. What’s inside that requires protections such as this? Wired has some of the specifications:

Inside, the facility will consist of four 25,000-square-foot halls filled with servers, complete with raised floor space for cables and storage. In addition, there will be more than 900,000 square feet for technical support and administration. The entire site will be self-sustaining, with fuel tanks large enough to power the backup generators for three days in an emergency, water storage with the capability of pumping 1.7 million gallons of liquid per day, as well as a sewage system and massive air-conditioning system to keep all those servers cool. Electricity will come from the center’s own substation built by Rocky Mountain Power to satisfy the 65-megawatt power demand. Such a mammoth amount of energy comes with a mammoth price tag—about $40 million a year, according to one estimate.

Wired: NSAs New Data Collection Center and Details on Its Public Eavesdropping Capabilites

NSA's data center layout. (Image via Wired)

Wired also includes a former NSA official going on the record for the first time on the secret, domestic spying program Stellar Wind and its role in data communication collection, which when the Bluffdale facility is complete will be stored there. Former senior NSA “crypto-matematician” William Binney, who helped develop NSA’s spying capabilities before leaving in 2001, explains how the NSA deliberately violated the Constitution, which was the reason why he left, in setting up warrentless wiretapping to the extent that they did. Wired reports that much of NSA’s wiretapping practices now were made legal under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008:

Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email. At the outset the program recorded 320 million calls a day, he says, which represented about 73 to 80 percent of the total volume of the agency’s worldwide intercepts. The haul only grew from there. According to Binney—who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago—the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light.

[...]

According to Binney, one of the deepest secrets of the Stellar Wind program—again, never confirmed until now—was that the NSA gained warrantless access to AT&T’s vast trove of domestic and international billing records, detailed information about who called whom in the US and around the world. As of 2007, AT&T had more than 2.8 trillion records housed in a database at its Florham Park, New Jersey, complex.

Verizon was also part of the program, Binney says, and that greatly expanded the volume of calls subject to the agency’s domestic eavesdropping. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he says. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” (Spokespeople for Verizon and AT&T said their companies would not comment on matters of national security.)

Wired reports that in order to return to a Constitutional system, Binney suggested an idea for an automated warrant system, instead of “[subverting] the whole process.” When this didn’t happen, Binney told Wired he had hoped reform could be made under the Obama Administration. His idea didn’t take hold again. Where are we at in this country in terms of surveillance and following Constitutional privacy protections? Wired reports Binney saying  “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state” as he held up his thumb and forefinger close together.

Check out the full story for more details on data collection, NSA’s Utah facility and the encryption-cracking capability it hopes to develop here. The article post on Wired’s Threat Level and the cover story for Wired Magazine was written by James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America published in 2009.

This article has been updated since its original posting.