Viewpoint: The spies move next door

The National Security Agency’s construction of a massive, 1 million square-foot “spy center” is currently under way in the Utah desert. According to the April issue of Wired magazine, it is “the nation’s largest and most expensive cybersecurity project,” illustrated with figures like a $40-million-per-year energy bill, servers with the capacity to hold about 500 quintillion pages of text, and a fence meant to stop a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour.

According to NSA’s website, the facility, named the Utah Data Center, “will be a state-of-the-art facility designed to support the Intelligence Community’s efforts to further strengthen and protect the nation’s cybersecurity.”

Such a colossal structure combined with an infamously secretive organization has led to suspicion, including that of James Bamford, the author of Wired’s article “The Black Box.” One can’t help but wonder what sort of data the NSA, which has a history of illegal wiretapping through AT&T and Verizon, plans to gather.

Other past examples of the NSA illegally spying on Americans behind Congress’ back include Project Shamrock, when it eavesdropped on telegrams, and Project Minaret, when it listened in on phone calls of protesters who were against the Vietnam War.

Still, Forbes contributor Loren Thompson believes Bamford’s piece is speculation.

“If it posed a material threat to democratic government or the privacy rights or citizens, the project would have been stopped in its tracks a long time ago,” Thompson said.

But why not question those in power? Why blindly follow authority?

The question presently would be why the NSA would want to listen in on us boring citizens. One postulate would be to have the upper hand if an uprising were to occur. After all, Time magazine aptly named its person of the year as “the protester.” Knowledge is power. In the past, the ones who possess the knowledge have been the ones in control.

This past Tuesday, NSA Chief General Keith Alexander was put on the spot by Rep. Hank Johnson in front of a House subcommittee and asked about whether the NSA has “the technological capacity to identify” Americans who had sent e-mails joking about Dick Cheney’s inability to hunt.

Alexander, of course, responded by saying no, the NSA does not have the ability, due to its need to obtain a warrant and its lack of equipment.

Paranoia does have its unattractive, crazy, recluse connotations; however, there is good reason to question the NSA.

In 2009, cybersecurity official Rod Beckstrom stepped down from his position as head of the National Cyber Security Center, expressing concerns about the NSA’s power.

“The threats to our democratic processes are significant if all top level network security and monitoring is handled by any one organization,” Beckstrom said in his resignation letter.

Further clarifying his letter in an interview with Forbes, he said the NSA’s role in gathering and classifying information is “the opposite of collaboration.”

Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy in the Department of Defense, defined NSA’s role at this year’s RSA Conference.

“Obviously, there are amazing resources at NSA, a lot of magic that goes on there,” Rosenbach said. “But it’s almost certainly not the right approach for the United States of America to have a foreign intelligence focus on domestic networks, doing something that throughout history has been a domestic function.”