Monday, July 6, 2009

NSA's Power- and Money-Sucking Datacenter Buildout Continues

By Jon Stokes
July 6, 2009

New budget docs reveal that the NSA is building a large new datacenter in Utah so that it can inhale more of your e-mail traffic. No word yet on how much it will pay for the large lidless eye wreathed in flame that will tower over the new facility.

A set of congressional budget documents reveals that the NSA plans to spend almost $1.8 billion over the next few years building a massive datacenter at Fort Williams in Utah. The docs describe the first part of a multi-phase construction project, which is slated to start next year. This first phase (PDF) involves developing infrastructure for the one million square foot center, infrastructure that includes 65MW of electrical power distribution, basic plumbing and drainage, and security and access control.

Power is apparently one of the key reasons that the NSA is looking to branch out from its massive Fort Meade facility and set up datacenters in other locations. The Salt Lake Tribune, which appears to have been first to the story, reports that there are two large power corridors that pass through Camp Williams, so the NSA will focus on hooking into those in the first phase of the project.

The Baltimore Sun ran a story in 2006, well before work started on this new facility, about the strain placed by the Fort Meade facility on Baltimore's power grid. (The Sun link is broken, but this Slashdot link still works.) The NSA was allegedly in danger of overloading the grid, so it was taking various measures to reduce datacenter power consumption.

Design work on the new center apparently started in November 2008, according to one document, and the NSA is targeting June 2010 to actually start work on the new facility.

There's also a massive, multiphase "campus development project" that's starting up at Fort Meade, and will eventually expand the facility to 5.8 million square feet. Cryptome has the details, and it looks like the NSA may be expanding its Fort Meade datacenter capacity as well with the addition of some on-site generators.

Land and power: yet another way that the NSA screws the public

Before the world started to collapse last September, there was a major race on among the Googles, Amazons, Microsofts, and HPs of the world to secure prime datacenter real estate, real estate that was limited by climate and the availability of cheap power. We covered a few of these stories, and passed on tons more of them, but it was clear to anyone who followed the space that "location, location, location" was as true for datacenter real estate as it is for any other kind. Indeed, it's so true that Google and others are considering building floating datacenters in order to use the ocean as a giant water cooler.

So when the economy recovers and the IT build-out race resumes, those datacenter builders can look forward to competing with the NSA for that precious real estate and power grid capacity, and to paying prices for equipment that are inflated by demand from the NSA. Really large NSA datacenter build-outs like this, especially if they continue, have a cost to citizens and the private sector that well exceeds the near $2 billion pricetag that the (already broke) taxpayers will pick up.

But the most outrageous thing about these costs is that no one has ever subjected the NSA's datacenter efforts to a publicly available cost-benefit analysis. In other words, what exactly are we buying with all of these power and computing resources?

The answer is supposed to be "security," but the NSA doesn't put out any sort of statistics on how many attacks it has prevented. My guess is that we could've just taken all the tens of billions (hey, that used to be a lot of money) we've blown on the NSA's SIGINT programs and spent it on free Western college educations for anyone from a terrorist-harboring country who wants one, and we'd be a lot further along in our efforts to both stop future attacks and to track enemies (by developing human assets that we can send back to the region, in-house Arabic language and culture expertise, and so on).

My favorite terrorist plot story was one told by former terrorism prosecutor turned pundit Andy McCarthy, where he recounted how a terrorist cell was using a shared Hotmail account to communicate. These guys set up a single e-mail account, passed the credentials around to cell members, and proceeded to communicate with it by saving messages for each other in the "Drafts" folder. Needless to say, this cell was not uncovered by multimillion dollar email-sniffing supercomputers.

But I won't recap all of the reasons why these huge, money-sucking, traffic-snooping NSA datacenters are not only a total waste of effort, but they actually make us less safe. Check out the list below for posts where I cover this in more detail.

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