Privacy concerns over the new NSA datacenter are a red herring

Privacy concerns over the new NSA datacenter are a red herring

Summary: A focus on the NSA invading your privacy just distracts from the fact that you give it up in so many other ways without even noticing.


After last week's mainstream news coverage of the new Utah datacenter being built for the NSA, I started getting contacted by all sorts of people who were concerned that their very souls were at stake and that their privacy would be compromised in such a way that the government would know everything that they were doing. And these messages weren't even from my friends who have heavy investments in tin foil.

It seems that a somewhat public claim that the datacenter would give the government the ability to track and store information about every citizen was putting people in a tizzy. Many of the emails I received asked if it was true that the government would be reading their email (this seemed like the No. 1 concern of friends and relatives that like to send me chain emails and old internet hoaxes); a lot simply expressed concern that all this data would be stored and the government would sift through it to discover their deep dark secrets.

Now technically, much of what these people were worried about requires a warrant. Even if it didn't, sorting out the actual criminal information from petabytes worth of trivia is a daunting task, even for today's supercomputers. But what really stood out was how little the average person understands about modern data collection methods and how much data already resides in databases out there that they have freely given up.

I found it really humorous that many of the "oh no, they're reading my email" messages came from people using Gmail. I don't know how many times its been pointed out that those targeted ads that Gmail users get are targeted by using data collection techniques against the contents of the users email.

And a significant portion of the emails I received were from friends and acquaintances that regularly post about their lives, in minute detail, on Facebook. Apparently, they labor under some misapprehension that what they post online remains forever under their control.

And when I asked, just about every person I talked to said "yes" to the question about store loyalty or rewards cards. So after years of giving up detailed information on their buying habits and filling out online surveys, they somehow think that the government is going to find out something new about them that doesn't already exist in a commercial database somewhere.

And these are just the primary ways that most people are already giving up all the details of their life. People write all sorts of disclaimers in things that they put online, as if those "you can't use this information for anything" paragraphs have any real value.

The bottom line is pretty much this: Yes, the government can build facilities that will potentially have the capability to seriously invade your privacy. But why should they bother when the vast majority of the country is already giving up that information freely?

Topics: Privacy, Data Centers

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  • Agreed!

    Public records databases have existed for years, decades. Combine that with when the check-out person at a register asks your your zip code, BAM!
    They now know with your name on credit card, your ZIP, when compared to the public DB's which are commercially available; your address, where you have lived, other people living in that home, buying habits, etc.

    If the retailer Target can figure out if you are pregnant based on browsing and shopping purchases, and send targeted mailers BEFORE you even have your child. Analytic's, its the future. It's not what you can warehouse, it's what you can get out of it that is important.

    If a retailer can figure out your shopping habits through analytic's, the government can identify other patterns that could be nefarious in behavior. I see no problem with this. The safety and well being of the country is more important than the piddly topics stuck in most inboxes.
    • That's why when the cashier ask's "Zip Code"

      I respond "No thank you, I have one already".

      I really don't want to help them create a datbase of me for them to sell to another marketer.
      William Farrel
  • You miss the point

    I can give up any of my data I want. Someone else taking it without my knowledge or permission is the point.
  • Agree, but other more important points

    Yes: Big Brother, US government or others have/will invade your privacy, and seems the masses all too eager to facilitate that invasion.

    The problem with this data center is, no matter how many googleplex-flops-bytes-megawatts this data center has for recording, decyphering, and analyzing "all the data in the world", that data set will not yield "actionable intelligence" which stops terrorists, cyber or otherwise. Indeed, a lesson of 9/11 was that high tech, cold war, super powers with super computers and all the money in the world, can not stop the commited individual or cell from acting.

    Furthermore, this data center is so obviously identical in approach to various cold war data and processing centers (with 10 million vacuum tubes then), which when eventually completed (and many never actually got operational) will be obsolete or incapable of executing the mission.

    But like those cold war data centers, they will do a very effective job of wasting resources (time, money, etc), resources which could do so much good in the world, if spent elsewhere.

    I conclude that US government must at least attempt to keep up with the cyber universe, with tools like this. Better than doing nothing. But let's get real. AES 256 is tough to crack, but that cypher is static key. What about moving codebooks? And what about the terrorists that stay off the grid? This data center will fail to stop terrorism, which is it's prime mission. Right?