Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big Brother is Watching you, Part 2

Part 2

Although data storage is certainly an on-going goal of the NSA, a more likely immediate use may very well be brute-force hacks of encryption, which is an extremely computation-intensive endeavor.

All modern communications are encrypted.  The NSA is very interested in defeating encryption, and has a facility in TN engaged in the “High Productivity Computing System Program” that concentrates on that one goal.  The immediate official goal of the program is to design a computer capable of petaflop speed – that is, one quadrillion operations per second.  

Major progress on defeating encryption has already been made.

Note the mention of NSA “backdoors” in commercial encryption.  Scary, isn’t it?

Of course, technology changes very quickly.  New methods of encryption are being written all the time.  The NSA will of course try to defeat any new methods of encryption.  Assuming brute-force hacks, that is going to take considerable computer capacity.

With all due respect to Moore’s Law, there are limits to computational speed.  That is, using conventional technology.

The new frontier may be Quantum Computing.  A good video explaining the basics of quantum computing is here …

Before you assume it’s an entirely theoretical, consider that Quantum Computers are already being made.

The NSA manufactures it's own chips (as does Google and others who place a premium on security). 

OK, the NSA has super-computers, is developing even more-powerful computers, has an unlimited budget, and operates in secret with little or no oversight. Why should I care?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Big Brother is Watching You

Preamble:  I am not a Data Scientist, or a Computer Expert, or a Data Security Expert.  I’m just a small-town accountant with an interest in computers. I also read a lot.  My goal in this blog is to codify my readings regarding current events, to begin a conversation regarding our expectations of privacy and 4th Amendment rights, and to provide you with links to the sources used, so that you can judge the source’s credibility for yourself.

Part 1
This month, the new NSA Utah Data Center comes on line.  The NSA has other facilities, including a 28 acre site near Baltimore.  But the Utah facility is remarkable, even by Google or Apple standards.
The $2B Utah facility includes 1 million square feet of space, with 100,000 square feet (officially, possibly more) dedicated to a server farm.   The Data Center will be almost entirely self-sufficient.  Security is state of the art, and includes a fence capable of stopping a 15,000 pound vehicle traveling at 50 mph.
Even more impressive is the computer capacity of the data center.  Computers consume power and generate heat.  100,000 square feet of rack-mounted computers consume lots of power, and generate lots of heat.  This Data Center will have its own electrical generator, producing 65 Mw of power.  To put that in perspective, the average home consumes about 1kWh of power.  So, a 65 Mw generator is capable of powering 65,000 houses.  The Data Center will consume 1.5 million gallons of water daily for cooling.  The NSA’s own description is here …
A March 2012 article in Wired speculated that the data storage capacity would be on the order of yottabytes (one yottabyte = one trillion terabytes), a capacity so large it is almost unimaginable.
However, more recent estimates put capacity in the range of 3-12 exabytes.  That’s still a lot of storage, equivalent to 24hr video and audio records of every person in the US for one year.  That estimate is also more in line with space and power specifications of the Utah facility.
So, what is the NSA going to do with all of those computers?  And why should I care? 
Stay tuned for Part 2.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remembering James Buchanan

James Buchanan, noted Economist, died yesterday at the age of 93.  To quote an editorial in the 1/10/13 issue of the WSJ:

Though a free-marketeer to his bones, [Buchanan] made his biggest mark and won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work studying economic incentives in government.

With Gordon Tullock, Buchanan developed what became known as “public choice theory”.  Buchanan described it as the application of the profit motive to government: “It presupposes that if there is value to be gained through politics, persons will invest resources in efforts to capture this value”. 

In other words, Buchanan theorized that public officials often act in their own self-interest rather than the public’s interest.

While that might seem a quaint notion to my younger readers, it was ground-breaking theory at the time.  I grew up in the 60’s, in Alabama. To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, they were indeed “interesting times”. Civil rights, Women’s rights, Vietnam, rampant drug use – so many social issues that roared to the forefront of American consciousness.  Previously, Americans really did believe that public officials were more nobly motivated and trustworthy than were business and other private-sector people.  We believed that public officials acted only in the public interest.

Then came Nixon.  Slowly, Americans woke up to the reality that public officials didn’t deserve our blind trust. 

Buchanan’s thoughts seem as relevant today as in 1986.  Witness the paralysis in Congress in its “handling” of the fiscal cliff.  It had nothing to do with serving the American people.  It was about political gamesmanship. 

 “The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” … Harry S. Truman