It’s been nearly a year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid on the US government’s domestic spying programs and opened the floodgates of public interest in homeland espionage. Since then, it seems the media has fed the weary public a new troubling revelation over the state of privacy in America every couple of days or weeks; as for the growing surveillance state in America, it seems little has changed.
No matter how you spin it, last year’s revelations were a defining moment in America’s social and political history, and in one sense a real “victory for the people”. But beyond a string of news conferences and public statements from everyone up to and including NSA officials, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and the United States president himself, last year’s NSA damage control seemingly did little to slow down the growth of the US government’s cyber-spying apparatus. Media outlets now supposedly have months or years’ worth of groundbreaking information ready for public release. But it’s almost as if, with so much coming to light, none of it is all that groundbreaking anymore. Has a new precedent been set? Is nation-wide domestic spying old news in America?
Offices and mega facilities scattered across the US landscape remain the most tangible evidence, and biggest reminder, of the unmitigated scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations. The NSA, of course, does more than compile data on the American public (European countries are also fair game), so perhaps not all these facilities loom entirely ominous in the eyes of US citizens. But the activities carried out here, and the funding they receive, remain highly classified, and their numbers are growing.
What we do know from Snowden’s leaked NSA documents last year is that NSA’s data-mining surveillance programs have a blanket mandate to collect data from private phone, email, text message, app, social network, online gaming and credit card activities of the public without precedent. This has created, among other things, a need for mega data-storage facilities—hard concrete and steel infrastructure capable of storing all that information in the order of exabytes, or billions of gigs of data—alongside additional modernized work bureaus for NSA personnel.
Is it an understatement to say America’s surveillance state has come a long way from the days of the government denying that a domestic spying programme even existed, asserting the existence of “No Such Agency”? This list looks at the scale of NSA operations today through the lens of infrastructure costs; these are the 8 obelisks of the US government’s homeland spying complex with the heftiest price tags.
8. Multiprogram Research Facility, Oak Ridge, Tennessee: $41 million
Also known as Building 5300, this 214,000 square-foot compound on the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory campus emerged from construction in 2006 as part of a classified NSA supercomputing program. Several NSA sources describe over 300 scientists, computer engineers and various specialists developing high-speed cryptanalytic computing tools here to decipher tremendous volumes of encrypted data in record time. One “unclassified” facility on the same campus unveiled the fastest computer in the world in 2009; we can only speculate as to the scale of projects underway in the top secret Building 5300. As one ex-NSA employee summed up, “there’s no sign on the door” to this government facility.
7. Texas Cryptologic Center (NSA Texas): $72 million
Until last year’s revelations, the conversion of this former Sony computer chip factory into an intelligence-gathering, data-storing operation went all but completely under the radar. Located on a 633,000 square-foot chunk of San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base, flanked by a series of gargantuan A/C units, the center currently houses a 94,000 square-foot facility for data storage alone. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg: A local bond sale in 2006 estimated the NSA plans to spend $300 million on the area. For now, it remains one of the more low-key NSA properties (operations and employee count are classified).
6. Aerospace Data Facility, Aurora, Colorado: $141 million
Established in the Second World War, Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base currently serves over 92,000 active National Guard troops in carrying out air operations, satellite-controlled missile warning systems, space surveillance and a host of other communication functions. Sources indicate its on-site Aerospace Data Facility underwent construction in 2012 for a new 200,000 square-foot intelligence complex to house 850 NSA personnel. Estimated completion was this past December, though current status isn’t widely known. Once operational (if not already) the estimated $141 million facility will coordinate the majority of NSA activity at the air force base, including collecting data from satellites in geosynchronous orbit for processing and relaying to NSA headquarters.
5. Ford Gordon Facility (NSA Georgia): $286 million
The grand opening of the NSA’s Fort Gordon facility took place about a year before Snowden’s leaks last June, in an uncharacteristically public ceremony complete with ribbon cutting and speeches to a mixed crowd of civilians and military staff. Slated, at the time, to house around 4,000 experts in linguistics and cryptology, the $286 million, 604,000 square-foot operations center contains 47 conference rooms, a 2,800 square-foot fitness center, a 300-seat auditorium and 2,500 workstations for raw data surveillance operations. “NSA Georgia” has become the agency’s first dedicated large-scale facility at Fort Gordon, after operating there quietly since 1994. Its careful public image conceals an alleged focus on data intercepts from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
4. NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland: $35 million—$295 million adjusted
A small green highway sign hovering above exit ramp 9 on Maryland’s Route 295 South reads: “NSA Employees Only”. As the largest employer in the state of Maryland, two thirds of the entire NSA report to its headquarters here in Fort Meade, a 350-acre campus of 1,300 buildings. More than 100 watch posts survey the complex where 20,000 personnel collect and disseminate intelligence from all NSA hubs directly to the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon.
In 2007, the NSA’s electrical bill matched that of the entire capital city of Annapolis, yet recent reports still reveal their energy consumption rapidly outgrowing their infrastructure. Here at NSA headquarters, the agency has big plans to handle the load (read on…).
3. Hawaii Regional Security Operations Center (NSA Hawaii): $320 million
Last year’s NSA-exposé began some 2,500 miles off the US pacific coast, at Hawaii’s then-named Kunia Regional SIGINT Operations Center. It was there that Edward Snowden loaded classified documents – detailing the government’s mass surveillance programs – onto a memory stick in May before leaking to the press the next month. But that historic facility will soon be replaced by this new $320 million dollar operations and data center (artist’s rendering above). The website of a civil engineering firm working the project indicates it hasn’t yet been finalized. Whenever it is, the NSA will have a brand new hub for reconnaissance projects on America’s island paradise—particularly suited for intercepting Asian intelligence.
2. Utah Data Center: $1.5-$2 billion
One and a half million square feet of digital storage space consuming an estimated $40 million in electricity a year; this is where virtually all NSA intelligence posts relay their information, and it’s from here that the NSA headquarters receive virtually all their dispatches. It’s been called the NSA Cloud, and it’s only months old.
The Utah Data Center, in effect, harnesses the power of every eavesdropping satellite, every overseas listening post and every secret monitoring hub in the NSA’s arsenal. It burns through a mammoth power-load and comes equipped with its own fire department, water treatment facilities, chiller plants, electric substation and sixty emergency standby generators; a titanic complex pouring through an estimated 6,500 tons of water a day while NSA hackers sort through 2.1 million gigabytes of data by the hour. It’s the largest, most expensive and apparently most classified cyber security project in U.S. history, and it won’t even be for long…
1. Site M Expansion, NSA Headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland: $3.2 billion projected
Picture this: It was last May—Edward Snowden just secured what must be the most historic data stick in human history, far out in the middle of the Pacific, NSA Hawaii. Sometime within weeks, perhaps even the very same day, shovels broke ground on the largest NSA infrastructure project ever known, way over on the US east coast.
The timing is uncanny. As the NSA took its biggest leap forward with this 227 acre, 1.8 million square foot, $3.2 billion headquarters expansion, a single inspired employee materialized plans to spill the beans on its classified and, as many around the world argue, unconstitutional domestic surveillance practices. The termed Site M Expansion, expected completion 2016, could cost as much as $5.2 billion in upgrades by 2029. It’s a fitting explosion of resources for the accelerating volume of data NSA headquarters receives from its burgeoning data centers, and its scale is rivaled only by the international media explosion just weeks after its outset.
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