The Surveillance Scandals

06

Behold the NSA’s Dark Star: the Utah Data Center

It’s the ultimate machine of what’s become our Paranoid State. Clive Irving on the Orwellian mass-surveillance data center rising in the Utah desert.

Remember the Stasi, the secret police who operated in East Germany when it was a communist state? When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans discovered they had been living in a society so rotted by paranoia that at least one in three of its adult citizens were spying on the other two.

From this springs what I call the Stasi Principle: a state’s appetite for collecting intelligence expands in direct relationship to its technical ability to do so.

In the case of East Germany, this ended up producing warehouses stuffed with bulging files containing the minutely observed details of the everyday, humdrum lives of millions. The product was both banal and, in its range and results, terrifying (a world caught beautifully in the film The Lives of Others).

In the case of the U.S., the apotheosis of the same mind-set lies in a sprawling complex at Camp Williams, Utah, due to start operating this fall. Billions of dollars have gone into creating this cyberintelligence facility for the National Security Agency.

There’s no official explanation of the Utah Data Center’s real mission, except that it’s the largest of a network of data farms including sites in Colorado, Georgia, and Maryland. But it’s obviously been built to vastly increase the agency’s capacity to suck in, digest, analyze, and store whatever the intelligence community decides to collect. As of this week, we know a lot more about the kind of data that includes.

Of course, the U.S. is still far from being the police state that East Germany was. But I do think we need to better understand how this technological juggernaut works, what its scope really is—and particularly we need to appreciate how our political acceptance of this scale of surveillance is shaping the kind of society we are.

The national-security industrial complex is now of the size, power, and influence of the military-industrial complex of the Cold War, which President Eisenhower first defined and warned of. As then, this complex uses the national interest as a reason for having to operate in secrecy, and invokes patriotism—literally in the PATRIOT Act—to create a political consensus.

Nineteen terrorists with minimal technology—box cutters—have enabled the counterterrorism industry to enjoy unbounded reach. White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest used the familiar argument to defend the newly disclosed surveillance: it was, he said, “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terror activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”

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The Utah Data Center is part of “a network of data farms” in the U.S. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Where is it absolutely essential to violate privacy and where not?

That’s actually a simplification. Surveillance has two fundamental purposes: to track the known and discover the unknown. It’s hard to comprehend the science involved. How, for example, do you cull billions of bytes of data a second in a way that discriminates between the useless and the essential? Only one thing is for sure, and that is that the policy driving the velocity of the NSA’s ever-expanding sweeps is first to make those sweeps as global and indiscriminate as possible and then to apply algorithms able to instantly see the significant from the insignificant. If only it were that simple.

It is patently easy to defend the resources devoted to intelligence gathering by saying that many attacks have been thwarted, without saying what and where they were. Neither the Boston Marathon atrocity nor the London assassination of a British soldier were detected in advance, even though intelligence services in both countries had the perpetrators on their radar.

There is a certain kind of intellectual depravity in trying to have us accept that all surveillance is good for us. Politicians of both parties who now say there is nothing new in what has been revealed, that this was all authorized and kosher, are captives of this depravity, because they don’t really know any more than we do where to draw the line. Where is it absolutely essential to violate privacy and where not? 

This is made even worse by the cover of enormous technical complexity. At least the Stasi’s low-tech methods could be seen for what they were, part of a cumbersome and gross bureaucratic machine, essentially human in its systems, allowing culpability to be clearly assigned.

In our case there is the Dark Star factor, like the Utah operation, working on robotic principles, not dependent on putting bugs in chandeliers, leaving no fingerprints, and capable of awesome penetration. We have the ultimate machine of the Paranoid State, an Orwellian apparatus that intoxicates its operators with its efficiency, enthralls its masters with its omniscience, and emasculates its political overseers with its promise of efficacy.