Analysis: NSA Utah Data Center would be world’s biggest iPod

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

The NSA has recently denied that a data center being constructed in the Utah desert will be used to monitor citizen’s private emails, but the denial comes after years of speculation and whistle-blower testimonies.

In order to understand the magnitude of the Utah Data Center, The Daily Caller has come up with several useful and manageable comparisons.

Officially known as the Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, the Utah Data Center was first unveiled in July 2009 by a report by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Plans for a data center in San Antonio were also announced by the agency in 2007. Although the exact size of the San Antonio facility is unknown, it took the place of a 470,000 square foot former Sony microchip plant, reported DataCenterKnowledge.

President Obama’s Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative calls for “upgraded infrastructure” and “increased bandwidth” as part of enhancing the nation’s cybersecurity capabilities. Yet, the San Antonio data center is only one part of the agency’s capacity.

Author James Bamford wrote for Wired in 2012 that the Utah Data Center “will be the centerpiece of the NSA’s cloud-based data strategy and essential in its plans for decrypting previously uncrackable documents.”

Construction of the $1.2 billion project in Utah is expected to be completed in September, according to an April 15 Reuters report.

By comparison, NASA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2013, according to OMB estimates, was approximately $17.7 billion. The agency’s mission for the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity cost taxpayers $2.5 billion.

A January 2011 news release by the NSA announced that the 1 million square-foot facility — located at Camp Williams, near Bluffdale, Utah —  “is the largest U.S. Department of Defense project in the nation.”

By comparison, Apple’s data center currently under construction in Prineville, Oregon is comprised of two buildings, each 338,000 square feet. Facebook’s own data center in Prineville is planned to be three facilities 300,000 square feet each when fully completed.

Still, the NSA facility is dwarfed by some other structures in the U.S. For example, The Mall of America – which is approximately 4.2 million square feet in size — could fit four NSA Utah Data Centers inside.

In terms of storage capacity, the data center might be better thought of as “the world’s largest iPod.”

CNET estimated in 2009 that the facility could store a yottabyte of information.

A yottabyte roughly converts to one quadrillion gigabytes, or 200 quadrillion 5MB mp3 files of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, which would take over 1 trillion years to listen to consecutively. By comparison, the universe is an estimated 13.7 billion years old.

Fox News, however, recently made a more conservative estimate of 5 zettabytes, which is —  according to Wolfram|Alpha — roughly 400 times the estimated information content of all human knowledge.

The DoD’s interest in yottabyte capacity, Bamford noted in his Wired piece, stems from the projected growth of global Internet traffic.

“It needs that capacity because, according to a recent report by Cisco, global Internet traffic will quadruple from 2010 to 2015, reaching 966 exabytes per year,” reported Bamford, stating that a million exabytes equals a yottabyte.

The NSA is the U.S. government’s cryptological intelligence agency charged with intercepting and analyzing foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence. The agency, which is part of the Defense Department, also protects U.S. government communications and information systems.

The size of the Utah data center, coupled with the secrecy and the surveillance capabilities of the agency, has terrified civil liberties advocates and former NSA employees.

Former NSA employee William Binney has alleged that the U.S. is not far from a “turnkey totalitarian state,” and is one of several former employees who have provided sworn testimony in a lawsuit — Jewel v NSA — against the agency.

The agency has, however, denied that it will use the data center to conduct illegal surveillance of Americans.

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