We Just Built Skynet in the Desert, Now What?

Ten years after 9/11, the National Security Agency (NSA) is close to putting the finishing touches on what will be the single biggest spy center in the country. According to James Bamford of WIRED, this new one million-square foot spy complex in the Utah Desert will actually be capable of monitoring, intercepting and de-encrypting just about any message sent over any communication network in the country. It will be capable of keeping tabs on any civilian in the U.S. or any foreigner visiting the USA. And it will all be hooked up to federal computers in Washington, giving it access to the records and databases of the most powerful government agencies in the country. If all this is starting to sound a lot like Skynet in the Terminator movies, that’s because, well, it is - minus the Schwarzenegger robots, of course.


WIRED inside the matrixThe sheer amount of data that the NSA – and by extension the CIA, FBI and Pentagon – will be able to collect on both foreigners and its own civilians is staggering. The $2 billion center, which goes by the disarmingly bland name of the Utah Data Center, is the final piece in the puzzle for the Pentagon, which has been attempting to build a Global Information Grid ever since 9/11. Remember the Total Information Awareness program of 2003? Well, it’s now here in physical form – and it’s heavily guarded. In military parlance, it’s not a “soft” target - the facility has been hardened to the point where a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour couldn't muscle its way inside. At its peak, this new surveillance center will be able to handle so much data that the NSA practically had to coin a new word to describe it: yottabytes. There are so many servers running this system that the annual cooling costs are estimated to be $40 million.

That’s quite an electricity bill for a "data center."

That's because this federal spy center goes far beyond what’s already being collected about us online, to explore the “Deep Web” that’s all but invisible to typical search engines. The spy center will also delve into the world of code-breaking and reverse-encryption. Even things that we think are far beyond any type of cyber-penetration will be readily available to the powers-that-be. That’s where things get downright scary. We assume that spambots and spiders slither behind us everywhere we go online, but what do we really know about all the other information that is being tracked about us? What information is being collected about us by security monitors in the streets and satellites overhead? The scope of what's being collected by the NSA is breathlessly thorough in detail, reaching into every area of our lives: 

"Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy."

This digital "pocket litter" that each of us leaves behind us may sound harmless – but that's until all of this highly unstructured data gets dumped into a supercomputing capable of mining all this data and producing patterns and insights. This “pocket litter” is no longer trash once it can be used to construct ever-more precise profiles of everyday civilians and predict future behaviors.

“Cybersecurity” and “the war on terror” are handy little buzzwords for enabling governments to extend their cyber-surveillance over every aspect of our lives. At the end of the day, pure democracy and absolute authoritarianism are really just flip sides of the same coin. This is precisely why dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We are so terrifying. Authoritarian regimes always start out with a willingness to help - not enslave - its civilians. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. A government that claims to protect its citizens by spying on them is a government that needs to be watched, monitored and held under strict surveillance by its own citizens.

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