Shadowy eyes and ears of NSA to modernize with cloud and crypto centers

If knowledge is power, then no one is more powerful than the National Security Agency. A motto for the shadowy eyes and ears responsible for America's national defense is "technology never sleeps." It takes a 24/7/365 global workforce to support the NSA's mission. When thought of that way, it's easier to understand how the NSA slurps up as much data every six hours as is stored in the entire Library of Congress. Imagine collecting about 74 terabytes of raw data every six hours, or enough data to fill four Library of Congress centers every 24 hours!

How could the super secret spook agency stockpile that much surveillance every day? Think along the lines of 75,000 men and women eavesdropping on the world by way of 12 satellites circling the globe, 50 aircraft modified to electronically eavesdrop, and every U.S. attack submarine having NSA intercept personnel onboard to make the most of electronic surveillance. According to author and historian Matthew Aid, "The USS Jimmy Carter submarine works exclusively for NSA tapping cables under the water." In an interview with 60 Minutes, Aid explained more about how the NSA electronically collects intelligence.

NSA's chief information officer (CIO) Lonny Anderson talked with Federal News Radio's Jason Miller about the NSA's mission, the three new state-of-the-art NSA cryptological centers in Hawaii, Georgia and Texas, as well as how efficiencies in IT with the cloud will help modernize the secretive intelligence agency.

NSA's massive 65 megawatt data center is on 240-acres at the National Guard facility in Camp Williams, Utah. The self sustaining complex will have 1 million square feet of enclosed space with 100,000 square feet of working computer space. It will have its own "water and wastewater treatment plants, power, gas supply, battery backup, visitor-control facilities, vehicle inspection station and perimeter security." (Please see the Editor's Note below for source information.)

It is supposed to be capable of storing staggering amounts of surveillance data, yottabytes of data. In case your mind does not automatically compute just how mega huge that is, CrunchGear described it as, "There are a thousand gigabytes in a terabyte, a thousand terabytes in a petabyte, a thousand petabytes in an exabyte, a thousand exabytes in a zettabyte, and a thousand zettabytes in a yottabyte. In other words, a yottabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000GB. Are you paranoid yet?"


Anderson said the Utah data center will support the Obama administration's Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) as well as support the Intelligence Community (IC). It will have new tech and very efficient tech, designed with NSA's future needs in mind. It will be used to assist Homeland Security, but Anderson said the NSA only helps DHS when asked. The massive data center will help focus on cyber threats to make certain national security networks are protected. All intelligence will "feed" from the data center, meaning the data will be stored in that single data center which will help discover threats in a "near real-time environment."

Anderson wears two hats, CIO and tech director, but said NSA has a two-prong mission, two sides of the same coin. On one side is signal intelligence sources (SIGINT) which provide the military and policy makers with foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence to insure national defense and to advance global interest. On the Information Assurance (IA) side, NSA IA and network warfare professionals go to "great lengths" to insure protection of classified and sensitive information.

Anderson called IA cybersecurity strategy a "team sport" against malicious actors and nation states which are using sophisticated technology or have operational savvy. He said NSA is a "three-legged stool" made up of government civilians, government military and contractors; the NSA cannot accomplish its mission without all three. The NSA also heavily relies on academia, universities, and would like to tap into developers across all industries and universities to help accomplish its mission.

In the radio interview, Anderson mentioned the NSA currently uses three private clouds - a utility cloud for virtualization, a storage-as-a-service cloud, and a data cloud. For IT efficiency and to modernize the agency, the NSA intends to move to a thin client architecture, use more cloud technology and virtualizing of its servers.

Data storage must surely be a problem, as would actually analyzing all data collected by eavesdropping in a timely manner. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake told 60 Minutes the super secret agency was "choking on" the explosion of digital data. "Just incredible amounts. Even just storing it was becoming a challenge." Drake, who was charged with the Espionage Act, described it as "Vast volumes of data streaming across all kinds of different networks, wired, wireless, phones, computers, you name it."

Lastly, despite NSA's e-hoarding, Anderson said the NSA is a foreign intelligence agency, not Internet controlling cybercops. He said the NSA works within a "culture of compliance," operating within laws, and working to protect citizen's privacy and civil liberties. "We want citizens to know we take civil liberties and privacy very seriously."

I'm not touching that one right now, but it was a very interesting 30 minute interview. I recommend you listen to Jason Miller interviewing Lonny Anderson - the top dog of the NSA spooks. 


Editor's Note, Feb. 20, 2013:  The quote was retrieved from on the day of publication.  The link is no longer valid and has been removed from the post.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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