The NSA has been quietly increasing its computing power in recent years to keep up with its insatiable appetite for private data. Just as its reach in capturing domestic and international data has expanded, so too its physical presence is expanding dramatically to keep up with the massive computing power needed to crunch all that data.
Two months ago, the agency began construction on a huge supercomputer center to be built in Fort Meade, Maryland. The facility, adjacent to the NSA headquarters, is expected to be completed in 2016. With the help of 6,000 workers and a price tag of $895.6 million, it will eventually span a staggering 600,000 square feet.
But that isn't the only center being built. The NSA is currently building data centers all over the United States. Nor will it be the largest; the biggest one, soon to be completed in Utah, will be a million square feet, roughly five times the size of the U.S. Capitol. Just the computers will take up 100,000 square feet, and it will have its own electrical power substation to power all those computers and air conditioners. Of course all this data crunching isn't cheap; it cost $2 billion to build and the yearly electric bill is estimated at $40 million. It is expected to be operational this fall.
The purpose of the massive Utah facility, according to the official line, is to protect the nation's cyber security. But anyone not living in a cave for the past six weeks knows that the NSA is doing more data-wise, than protecting the nation's electrical grids and communications from hackers. Part of the Pentagon's expansion of its "Global Information Grid," the raw computing power of the Utah center is needed to keep up with the ever-expanding volume of data as internet and cell phone traffic grow. The facility will receive and analyze data from satellites and from the various listening posts maintained by the agency at home and abroad.
In addition to analyzing and storing the growing volume of information, the Utah Data Center will employ new code-breaking capabilities recently developed by the NSA. Because a lot of high-value information is heavily encrypted — business transactions, financial information, confidential personal information, as well as foreign military and diplomatic information — the ability to break sophisticated codes is essential and will be employed extensively at the center to obtain secrets both foreign and domestic. The enormous capacity of the Utah facility makes it necessary, in turn, to build the Ft. Meade facility to enable NSA analysts there to access the growing volume of material in Utah and use it to prepare reports and recommendations.
All this is part of an ambitious and longstanding effort to expand the NSA’s ability to monitor communication. This effort first began the late 1990s, and then exploded after 9/11. Though a well-received pilot project in the late 90s, known as ThinThread, was designed very carefully to screen out most unnecessary private data, thus preserving privacy and requiring less computing power, the program was cancelled due to bureaucratic turf battles. Now, as the agency collects and analyses massive amounts of private data, most of it unrelated to terrorist activities, the agency's physical footprint reflects its virtual one.