Tuesday, January 7, 2014

NSA San Antonio Data Mining Facility

The Panopticon Economy: NSA San Antonio Data Mining Facility 2008:
Surrounded by barbwire fencing, the anonymous yet massive building on West Military Drive near San Antonio’s Loop 410 freeway looms mysteriously with no identifying signs of any kind. Surveillance is tight, with security cameras surrounding the under-construction building. Readers are advised not to take any photos unless you care to be detained for at least a 45-minute interrogation by the National Security Agency, as this reporter was.
There’s a strangely blurry line during such an interrogation. After viewing the five photos I’d taken of the NSA’s new Texas Cryptology Center, the NSA officer asked if I would delete them. When I asked if he was ordering me to do so, he said no; he was asking as a personal favor. I declined and was eventually released.
America’s top spy agency has taken over the former Sony microchip plant and is transforming it into a new data-mining headquarters — oddly positioned directly across the street from a 24-hour Walmart — where billions of electronic communications will be sifted in the agency’s mission to identify terrorist threats.
“No longer able to store all the intercepted phone calls and e-mail in its secret city, the agency has now built a new data warehouse in San Antonio, Texas,” writes author James Bamford in the Shadow Factory, his third book about the NSA. “Costing, with renovations, upwards of $130 million, the 470,000-square-foot facility will be almost the size of the Alamodome. 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.”
Bamford’s book focuses on the NSA’s transformation since 9/11, with the impetus for the new facility being a direct ramification of those attacks. At the time, the NSA had only about 7 percent of its facilities outside the Washington D.C./Baltimore area. But the realization that additional attacks could virtually wipe out the agency catalyzed a regional expansion. [See “Secret Agency Man,” November 5, 2008.]
The new facility is a potential boon to the local economy since it’s reportedly going to employ around 1,500 people, but questions remain about whether there will be adequate oversight to prevent civil-rights violations like Uncle Sam’s recent notorious warrantless wiretapping program. The NSA would suggest the facility’s ability to sort through surveillance data is one of America’s top defenses against terrorist threats, but the NSA’s presence comes with concerns that abuse of its secretive power could see the agency become akin to the “Thought Police” of 1984, George Orwell’s classic novel depicting the nightmare of a total surveillance society — and all for nothing. Even as the facility is completed, a new government-backed report has concluded that data surveillance is an ineffective method for identifying potential terrorists or preventing attacks.
So just what will be going on inside the NSA’s new San Antonio facility? Bamford describes former NSA Director Mike Hayden’s goals for the data-mining center as knowing “exactly what Americans were doing day by day, hour by hour, and second by second. He wanted to know where they shopped, what they bought, what movies they saw, what books they read, the toll booths they went through, the plane tickets they purchased, the hotels they stayed in… In other words, Total Information Awareness, the same Orwellian concept that John Poindexter had tried to develop while working for the Pentagon’s [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].” ...
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.” (Microsoft did not return a call for comment before press deadline.) ...
NSA’s new facility also gives the agency easy access to UTSA’s Institute for Cyber Security and the school’s Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security. The ICS was founded in 2007 with a $3.5-million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to continue efforts to protect American communities against cyber-attacks, with the CIAS — a think tank launched in 2001 — being rolled into the ICS. All of this led U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-San Antonio) to declare San Antonio “the center of cybersecurity, in the country and the world.”
ICS Founding Executive Director Ravi Sandhu acknowledges some synergy between the NSA presence in San Antonio and UTSA’s cybersecurity work.
“Cybersecurity in the public domain has largely been about defense, but there’s certainly an attack component to it. To some degree, the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence agencies are now starting to talk about the attack component in the public domain,” says Sandhu.
Sandhu says UTSA’s cybersecurity students are recruited by many of San Antonio’s local employers and doesn’t doubt that NSA is one of them. “Recruiting is one end … but it’s an attractive thing for NSA employees [too]. They can further their education — they can do degrees part-time, they can do advanced degrees … so there are advantages beyond direct recruitment of NSA students.”
Does automated data mining even work?
While the opening of the NSA’s massive new data center heightens existing civil-rights concerns, a new report from the National Research Council questions whether such data-mining is even effective. Sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation and released in October of this year, the report suggests that pattern-based data-mining is not even a viable way to identify terrorists.
The 352-page study —“Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists” — concludes that identification of terrorists through automated data-mining “is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts.” It also says inevitable false positives will result in “ordinary, law-abiding citizens and businesses” being erroneously flagged as suspects.
“Actions such as arrest, search, or denial of rights should never be taken solely on the basis of an automated data-mining result,” says the report. The question, then, is how rigorously will human analysts vet such information before alleged leads are pursued, and who has oversight of the process?
“Part of the problem is … jurisdiction over national-security issues is very divided in Congress. You have the Homeland Security committee, the Justice committee, but, of course, you also have some basic issues — government oversight, appropriations,” says Professor Fred Cate, the NRC committee member who wrote most of the report and who serves as director of Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. “So I think in some ways one of the issues is the need for a more streamlined oversight system so that somebody takes responsibility for it.”

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