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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
December 8, 2008 4:49 PM   Subscribe

The National Security Agency is building a data center in San Antonio that’s the size of the Alamodome. Microsoft has opened an 11-acre data center a few miles away. Coincidence? Not according to author James Bamford, who probably knows more about the NSA than any outsider. Bamford's new book reports that the biggest U.S. spy agency wanted assurances that Microsoft would be in San Antonio before it moved ahead with the Texas Cryptology Center. Bamford notes that under current law, the NSA could legally tap into Microsoft’s data without a court order. Whatever you do, don't take pictures of it the spy building unless you want to be taken in for questioning.
posted by up in the old hotel (42 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seven massive battery rooms contain hundreds of batteries and 2.7 mW of back-up power apiece.

What is this -- a data center for ants?
posted by JohnFredra at 5:05 PM on December 8, 2008 [7 favorites]


This is so offtopic, but I'm sad to discover the Alamodome has nothing to do with ice cream.
posted by weston at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2008


I don't wanna hear your excuses! The center has to be at least... three times bigger than this!
posted by gman at 5:09 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's nothing to hide if you haven't done anything wrong, citizen.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:09 PM on December 8, 2008


I'm glad to see we've finally joined the rest of the world and starting using the metric Alamodome system.
posted by proj at 5:14 PM on December 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


You can't imagine my disappointment when I rented a car from Alamo and it didn't even have a dome.
posted by ardgedee at 5:17 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see we've finally joined the rest of the world and starting using the metric Alamodome system.

Yes, this whole story reeks of progress.
posted by gman at 5:19 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


So... wait, the only link related to the "Coincidence? I don't think so" angle, which seems to be the point of the FPP, is a link to buy a book on Amazon?

Are you implying that people in Metafilter will comment on a post even if they don't read the actual article?
posted by qvantamon at 5:22 PM on December 8, 2008


Considering how much data can now be squeezed onto a small flash drive, the new NSA building may eventually be able to hold all the information in the world.

But, by the time they stored it, "all the information in the world" would include information about how that information was stored, so they'd need to store that information, too. And that means they'd need to store information about how the information indicating how the stored information was stored was stored, and that means they'd need information about how that information...

I always knew the NSA was evil, but this is the first time I've known why -- they're trying to destroy the world with a crappy young adult sci-fi paradox!

(That, or the author's sloppy hyperbole just unsold me his book for him)
posted by 7segment at 5:23 PM on December 8, 2008


I've heard some speculation that it might not be a datacenter, but instead might be what it was originally built for: a chip fab. Exactly what the NSA would want with a chip fab is anyone's guess, but I can think of some reasons why they might want to make a large quantity of custom ASICs, including making brute-force decryption engines similar to the ones used in several (DES?) decryption challenges, but bigger.

While I suppose any industrial site could function as a datacenter, turning a chip fab into one (as opposed to using a greenfields site) doesn't seem like it would necessarily be very easy. It seems like you'd probably end up scraping the place down to the bare concrete and walls.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:32 PM on December 8, 2008


Yes, because you need to build a facility right next door to the datacenter, since data is so hard to move. It'll seriously cut down on gas costs, driving the black unmarked trucks back and forth, loaded down with all those bits.

(On preview: there's been some muttering lately about chip fabs abroad inserting shadowy, undetectable backdoors into chips, so maybe they want to mint some HUNNERD PUR SENT MADE IN AMERICA ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS chips for use in sensitive applications.)
posted by phooky at 5:35 PM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


House Panel to Ask for NSA Spying Probe
posted by homunculus at 5:35 PM on December 8, 2008


> Exactly what the NSA would want with a chip fab is anyone's guess...

Exactly why Microsoft would want to get into the hardware business is also anyone's guess.
posted by ardgedee at 5:39 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are we still playing the Microsft=evil, Google= good angle? Google's patent on the original pagerank algorithm is not now nor has it ever been owned by Google or Larry Page or Sergey Brin. It's owned by the National Science Foundation. Google launches spy satellites in cooperation with the Defense Department. But Google is good because they run linux or let their employees take naps at work, or something.

If Microsoft is cozying up to the NSA, it's only because they are grossly behind Google in allowing government and intelligence agencies access to their search databases. It bizarre how this fact can't seem to penetrate the Boing Boing, Digg, reddit blog echo chamber that embraces every half-assed privacy-invading product implementation coming from google.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:45 PM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


So... wait, the only link related to the "Coincidence? I don't think so" angle, which seems to be the point of the FPP, is a link to buy a book on Amazon?

Wary of more conspiracy, eh? Don't blame you. Wanted to keep things tight in the FPP. Here's the relevant section from the final link:

Bamford writes about how NSA and Microsoft had both been eyeing San Antonio for years because it has the cheapest electricity in Texas, and the state has its own power grid, making it less vulnerable to power outages on the national grid. He notes that it seemed the NSA wanted assurance Microsoft would be here, too, before making a final commitment, due to the advantages of “having their miners virtually next door to the mother lode of data centers.” The new NSA facility is just a few miles from Microsoft’s data center of the same size. Bamford says that under current law, NSA could gain access to Microsoft’s stored data without even a warrant, but merely a fiber-optic cable.

“What the Microsoft people will have will be just storage of a lot of the email that is being sent. They keep this email — I don’t know why — and there should be some legislation saying how long it should be kept,” said Bamford in a phone interview last week. “The post office doesn’t keep copies of our letters when we mail letters; why should the telecom companies or the internet providers keep copies of our email? It doesn’t make sense to me. But there’s no legislation. So they need a place to store it, and that’s where they’re storing all this stuff.”

He makes a similar point in this City Paper interview:

CP: So where does the NSA go from here? Some of the stuff in the last section ofThe Shadow Factory reads like science-fiction, with data mining and artificial intelligence.

JB: Right now they're at a point where they've got enormous amounts of money, but they don't seem to be getting much out of it. They're getting hugely into this data mining--look at that building they're building down in San Antonio. And this is an agency that missed all these terrorist incidents, so what is this for? Is it good money after bad?

The thing I worry about is when you do have so few people watching NSA and so few restrictions on data mining that they just get carried away with it. That's why they're building that huge facility down in San Antonio. Not only to store data, which you probably only need about 75 people for--Microsoft, which is building a very similar facility only a few miles away that's almost exactly the same size, they only have 75. The NSA's going to put 1,400 people in there. The only reason you need that many people is if you're not just going to keep the routers humming, is if you're actually going to dig in to all the data in there, and what's in there could be what I'm looking at on my computer right now, or web searches I've been making, or what books people are buying from Amazon or what web sites they're visiting. Those are the things that worry me.
posted by up in the old hotel at 5:49 PM on December 8, 2008


Exactly what the NSA would want with a chip fab is anyone's guess

According to James Bamford's Body of Secrets, the NSA already has (had?) a chip fab. From the Amazon excerpt:
... Located in Crypto City, the ultra-modern, windowless, 60,000-square-foot building first began producing chips in 1991. Today it employs several hundred people. The building contains 20,000 square feet of "class 10" clean rooms-rooms whose ...
posted by mhum at 6:05 PM on December 8, 2008


Are we still playing the Microsft=evil, Google= good angle?

Especially since it's not Microsoft that has my data, it's Google.
posted by smackfu at 6:12 PM on December 8, 2008


I knew it! The National Science Foundation is selling my google searches to the NSA! BECAUSE THE PATENT.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:23 PM on December 8, 2008


Pastabagel: the only DoD connection your "spy satellite" link shows is that they launched their satellites from a pad at an Air Force base. Any more information on that, and why it's bad? Also: why am I supposed to be scared of or mad at the National Science Foundation? I'm not snarking, I'm genuinely interested in what you're saying.

Also: put me down on the "what does proximity accomplish?" list on this story. Unfortunately, they can legally tap into Microsoft's data no matter where the hell it is.
posted by penduluum at 6:28 PM on December 8, 2008


Has anyone thoroughly tested Windows for back doors? I don't think it's Google we need to worry about; it's the NSA tunnelling in through a backdoor on your Zyxel DSL modem, then into a back door on your Linksys router, then into a backdoor through Windows Vista, then digging around on your hard drive. After hearing how printer and copier manufacturers and even Adobe was able to keep a lid on the whole thing about constellations on bank notes, I wouldn't put the concept of back doors past any of these companies.
posted by crapmatic at 6:33 PM on December 8, 2008


The NSA helped Microsoft make Vista secure.
posted by up in the old hotel at 6:45 PM on December 8, 2008


...they launched their satellites from a pad at an Air Force base. Any more information on that, and why it's bad?

Where else are they going to launch from? Outsource to India?
posted by DU at 6:45 PM on December 8, 2008


crapmatic; what exactly are you talking about?
posted by odinsdream at 6:46 PM on December 8, 2008


..or is it one of those eponysterical things...
posted by odinsdream at 6:46 PM on December 8, 2008


It bizarre how this fact can't seem to penetrate the Boing Boing, Digg, reddit blog echo chamber that embraces every half-assed privacy-invading product implementation coming from google.

I don't regularly follow Boing Boing, Digg, or reddit, but there's plenty of wariness about Google on Slashdot.

But Google is good because they run linux or let their employees take naps at work, or something.

Microsoft's product weaknesses, marketing to middle management, and shenanigans abusing its desktop monopoly to destroy competitors alienated a generation of geeks. Its smug coastfest with IE6 alienated anybody who's done web development in the last five years, and IMHO, the contempt they deserve for that crap is an order of magnitude or two bigger than what they get, but maybe I'm just bitter because deficiencies in that particular product have stolen hundreds of hours of my life.

Google, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be resorting to any strongarm tactics to force anybody to use their products, and for the most part, what they put out seems to work in such a way that people want to use it.

That's the difference, near as I can tell.

It doesn't make me happy when most companies are overly cozy with the governments of the world, and Google isn't an exception. But it's sort of a red herring to bring them up in this particular discussion on Microsoft and the NSA, unless you are arguing this is simply business as usual, any large company would do the same thing, in which case, all other things being equal, it still makes sense to lend less goodwill to MS.
posted by weston at 6:58 PM on December 8, 2008


Wary of more conspiracy, eh? Don't blame you. Wanted to keep things tight in the FPP. Here's the relevant section from the final link

What do you think? that I read all those links before commenting? :)
posted by qvantamon at 7:09 PM on December 8, 2008


"Windows" and "secure" are two words that should never appear in a sentence together without quote-marks around one or both words.

As in Windows Vista is now "secure," you betcha!
posted by five fresh fish at 7:21 PM on December 8, 2008


It turns out that NSA also helped make Linux more secure, but that code is open for your inspection. Thank you Free Software!

As to the original post, I really didn't need another reason to run only open source apps on Linux and OS X, or to host my own email, or to use OTR with IM, or to browse logged out of sites where I have accounts, but NSA building right next to an MSFT datacenter? Yeah, that just can't be good. I dunno what's going on, but nothing good can come of that.

This might make a good Ask question, but over the years I've gotten the impression that people who really know the agency call it "NSA" as in "that's from NSA," and people who don't know the agency call it "the NSA" as in "that's from the NSA." Is that just my imagination?
posted by sdodd at 7:34 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


It turns out that NSA also helped make Linux more secure, but that code is open for your inspection. Thank you Free Software!

I'm pretty sure the covert purpose of SELinux is to make running a Linux server so goddamned painful that you go back to nice closed-source software where presumably the NSA's got back doors and what not. Why no, of course you wouldn't want httpd_can_network_connect to be true in your default configuration, we just packaged mod_proxy to fuck with you.
posted by enn at 8:39 PM on December 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


sdodd writes "It turns out that NSA also helped make Linux more secure, but that code is open for your inspection. Thank you Free Software!"

In full on paranoia mode can you trust your compiler?
posted by Mitheral at 9:46 PM on December 8, 2008


In full on paranoia mode can you trust your compiler?

Even if you have a lot of eyes on the compiler's source code, older compilers build newer compilers. Layers of bootstrapping are an interesting vector of attack.

Parasitic computing would be another interesting way for MicroNSA to crack codes: NSA writes the stack, Microsoft sells it. Homeland Security steps in to officially blame a slow network on spammers from Russia. Government-corporate cooperation helps fight terrarists.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:55 AM on December 9, 2008



Pastabagel: the only DoD connection your "spy satellite" link shows is that they launched their satellites from a pad at an Air Force base. Any more information on that, and why it's bad? Also: why am I supposed to be scared of or mad at the National Science Foundation? I'm not snarking, I'm genuinely interested in what you're saying.


The satellite produces extremely highly detailed imagery that only the government gets, Google gets lower resolution versions of those images - but the imagery that google uses is coming from the same satellite as the one the government is using. And you aren't supposed to be "scared" of the NSF. I'm just illustrating that from it's inception, Google was in partnership with the government, which is not the case with Microsoft.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:37 AM on December 9, 2008


Privacy is dead. But you knew that.

But in an odd way, the Cheney administration has taken the sting out of it. The knowledge that the government has unlimited power to collect information to be used against you becomes irrelevant when it's willing and able to destroy you for no reason at all. [see: Padilla, Jose]

Or to put it in Slashdot terms: you can stop worrying about the strength of your encryption. They can break you much quicker than they can break your password.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:02 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then - no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment - one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

" Do it to Julia ! Do it to Julia ! Not me ! Julia ! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me ! Julia ! Not me ! "
Yes, Orwell understood government all too well.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:17 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


“Is that just my imagination?”

No. It’s been community lingo. As in ‘I got word from CIA’ rather than ‘I got word from the CIA.’ Comes from incestuous organization and insular thinking, and also an implicit patriotism (that is - there is no other ‘IA’ one could be referencing, ergo ‘CIA’ not ‘the CIA.’ Not to slight the folks in the intelligence community, it’s same deal sometimes with academics as in ‘I went to U of I’ or ‘Northwestern’ - it’d otherwise be ‘the U of I’ or ‘the Northwestern University’ but it depends on the perspective of the person using it and their relationship to the place in question. Technically, NSA isn’t a title, so it’d be correct in usage to say ‘from NSA.’ For you grammar folks - I’m not commenting on proper usage, but on the psychological aspect in titular usage and implicit repetative patterns in language that result from incestuous organizational relationships...or whatever. Some folks use some terms because of their relationship to the organization in question - yes.)

Although it’s gotten broad enough for folks to notice, they’ll probably change it. Seen it in some references myself, fiction and otherwise.
One of the big hazards is keeping speech patterns from being redundant while avoiding certain key repetative patterns.
Same hazards in acronym use. Let someone speak long enough and you can deduce quite a bit about them.
Speaking shallowly here - say, how certain branches of the armed forces refer to rotary-wing aircraft (old joke - air force guy calls it a whirly, navy guy calls it a heilo, army guys call it a chopper, the marines point and go ‘uh! uh!’; although they (marines) still use slick for a non-gunship or unidentified craft when not forced to go along with the navy).
So you don’t want to get marked as Joe NSA, you’d do well to avoid the incestuous lingo.
Ergo - it’s kind of debatable in terms of ‘in the know.’ Someone without a cover might use it.
The completely ordinary guy in every way down the street who ‘works for the state department’ as a ‘lawyer’ or some such probably keeps a close ear on repetative patterns in his speech and would use the common terminology and grammar, whatever it may be regionally.
Although most of them speak bland English, like newscasters.
Some dude who makes no bones about working for no such agency is probably not in an insulated position or is so high up and visible that it doesn’t matter or they’re a technician of some sort. There’s an efficiency to that kind of language.

...bit of a derail there, sorry. But it is a good way to identify codifications and follow patterns in folks. Fairly rudimentary interrogation technique as well. Just requires listening skills.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:52 AM on December 9, 2008


Proximity is equivalent to bandwidth, at some level, particularly at very very astronomically high levels. Very roughly speaking, the maximum possible bandwidth between two places is equivalent to the carrying capacity of the channel / latency. Latency is how long it takes a packet of data to get from here to there. At some point, the speed of light becomes an issue to increasing the maximum possible bandwidth, and at that point, you want to be closer to whomever you are communicating with to reduce the latency.
posted by Freen at 6:00 PM on December 9, 2008


freen: how big a bandwith are you talking about?
posted by up in the old hotel at 3:01 PM on December 10, 2008


up in the old hotel: Let me put it into perspective then. Right now, the fastest consumer networking hardware you can buy from dell and install in your house is 1 gigabits per second. That translates to about 125 megabytes per second (bits vs bytes means one byte for every 8 bits, i'll use bits, as it's how bandwidth is sold, even through dsl and cable connections) in an ideal situation where latency is relatively low: less than half a millisecond for a round trip, such as my home network. At work, we have really speedy pipes, upwards of 1 gigabit per second. We have several location, and the maximum throughput i can get between the two locations is significantly smaller than 125 megabytes per second. The round trip ping time between those two locations I'm testing? 68ms, and the machines are in NYC and Los Angeles. So, it takes 68 milliseconds for data to travel from new york to LA and back again. Now, with both machines having a 1gigabit per second connection, what is the bandwidth available between these two machines? About 224 mbps, or 28 megabytes per second. 22% less than if they were sitting right next to each other. That's across the country.

So, the question becomes, at what point does it make sense to have your datacenters right next to each other? When you are dealing with significant amounts of data, terabits per second etc. Literally, when the speed of light starts to become a factor in your ability to push more data.

links of interest to this particular problem:
Measuring the speed of light and the circumference of the earth with TCP/IP
The case of the 500 mile email

and finally, a serious document: Latency vs Bandwidth
posted by Freen at 5:14 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


i realize I didn't quite answer the question: terabytes of data per second between one place and another, that's how much.
posted by Freen at 5:16 PM on December 10, 2008


freen: Thanks very much. If we're talking terabytes per second aren't we getting close to the traffic of the entire Internet? Or a significant chunk of it at least?
posted by up in the old hotel at 5:31 PM on December 10, 2008


Of course. That's the whole point.
posted by odinsdream at 7:09 PM on December 10, 2008


odinsdream: quite correct.
posted by Freen at 7:16 PM on December 10, 2008


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