March 25, 2014

"Why Does the NSA Want to Keep Its Water Usage a Secret?"

From Wired:
Why Does the NSA Want to Keep Its Water Usage a Secret? 

Utah Data Center: Note these
are multistory buildings
The answer is not too easy but also not too hard to guess, so take a moment to come up with your answer.
BY ROBERT MCMILLAN    03.19.146:30 AM 
The National Security Agency has many secrets, but here’s a new one: the agency is refusing to say how much water it’s pumping into the brand new data center it operates in Bluffdale, Utah. According to the NSA, its water usage is a matter of national security. 
The agency made the argument in a letter sent to officials in Utah, who are considering whether or not to release the data to the Salt Lake Tribune. Back in May, Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle asked for local records relating to the data center, but when he got his files a few months later, the water usage data was redacted. 
The situation shows just how important the new data center will be to the agency’s operations, including its widely discussed efforts to eavesdrop on internet communication. If it revealed how much water it’s using in Bluffdale, the agency believes, outsiders could get a good idea of the scope of NSA surveillance. 
“By computing the water usage rate, one could ultimately determine the computing power and capabilities of the Utah Data Center,” wrote the NSA’s associate director for policy and records, David Sherman, in an undated letter filed with Bluffdale in response to the Tribune’s public records request. “Armed with this information, one could then deduce how much intelligence NSA is collecting and maintaining.” 
The reality is that Sherman’s argument requires a pretty big leap of logic. Data center engineers can get rough ideas of compute power based on how much power a building consumes, but figuring this out on water is another matter. Some data centers, like Facebook’s facility in Prineville, Oregon, use custom-made swamp coolers to mist the air and cool down servers. Others push hot air into evaporative cooling towers, which are kept cold by running water. 
“There are many different ways to cool a data center,” says Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University. “Without knowing more about the actual facility then I don’t think anyone’s going to give you solid [computing capability] numbers.” ...
Early planning documents estimated that the NSA’s data center, which opened last year, would guzzle about 1.7 million gallons of water per day. That number was revised downward to 1.2 million gallons — made available at a discounted rate — according to other local documents uncovered by the Tribune. NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
     

37 comments:

Solus said...

I hope they have SSDs, and not spinning HDs, If Israel gets to know it is being spied upon by NSA, they may release Stuxnet, and make those HDs spin feveriously.

Anonymous said...

this is a tricky problem.
politically/culturally, Utah is as red-state as they come so any instillation there is much safer than a comparable installation in, say, Vermont. But 1.xyz M gallons of water is much easier to come across is...well...almost any other state in the Union. This is likely a pretty tough problem for the Powers That Be to solve

Anonymous said...

Well the answer was obvious to me, but I work in computing.

Anonymous said...

Pollution.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't water use more likely indicate the number of people rather than computers? So, it would indicate how much in human resources is being committed to the activity.

Anonymous said...

This is cooling water? If so, can't it be reused for irrigation or recycled using heat towers? Otherwise seems wasteful where water is scarce.

Rob said...

To hide the shocking level of OCD among NSA employees?

Anonymous said...

Doesn't water use more likely indicate the number of people rather than computers? So, it would indicate how much in human resources is being committed to the activity.

Water is used to cool all the servers that run to store all the data.

Michael Deloatch said...

Gee I'm not going to get exercised about their blowing through a million gallons a day to cool all those CPUs off.

Because I rest confident the workers are crapping into low flow toilets and that the NSA will be buying lots and lots of carbon credits. Everything has a price, even thermodynamics.

Auntie Analogue said...


New NSA Spy-On-Yourself Home Drones! - : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sx7TEC_dYi8

Even your kids aren't immune or safe from the NSA - be a good super-serf parent and start your kids' operant conditioning today! - : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIJINiK9azc

Best of all - unlike the NSA's new Utah Data Center, these New Spy-On-Yourself Home Drone "Fish" use NO WATER!

kudzu bob said...

Fighting evil is thirsty work.

jack strocchi said...

Water usage is directly proportionate to employee establishment. The NSA doesn't want us to know how many people are sticking there noses into our digital business. Personally I don't care as I have nothing to hide.

Bill said...

Doesn't water use more likely indicate the number of people rather than computers? So, it would indicate how much in human resources is being committed to the activity.

That's what I thought. Calculate how much water is being used and you can see how many times the toilet is flushed per day, and thereby figure out how many people are there.

But perhaps an alternative way to do that would be to check the local wastewater treatment plant. It's kind of hard to hide crap what with the EPA and all that.

And... This may provide the real answer: Make it illegal to pin the poop on the NSA, and also make it illegal for the local utility to charge them more for excessive use of water (or even to reveal how much they use). I remember what a scandal it was for Craig McCaw up here when it was revealed how much water he was using, and this is soggy Western Washington!

Maybe it's just a way to strong-arm the local govt. into eating the cost. And why is the NSA operating in Utah? Do they have access to the Mormon genealogy database? That would be an enormous intelligence asset.

Anonymous said...

They are pumping up to 50,000 gallons of water per day.

FirkinRidiculous said...

Thought it had to do with waterboarding.

Anonymous said...

It has nothing to do with the number of workers. We're talking about a data center here, there won't be many people on site. What there will be is a lot of computers, and those computers are water cooled. Anyone knowledgeable on the subject could use the rate of water usage to obtain an estimate of the computing power contained inside. That is especially useful information in the security/intelligence world because basically all encryption schemes can be broken with sufficient computing power. Thus knowing that the NSA's new data center is capable of, say, 5 petaflops is something the Chinese would find useful.

BB753 said...

Are they waterboarding prisoners in those facilities? It would explain the water usage.

Portlander said...

And why is the NSA operating in Utah?

That one is even easier to figure out than the water question.

1) Orin Hatch

2) Mormons are the last patriotic, conservative throw-back to the 1950's demographic we have left. If you're the NSA spying on everyone from Diane Feinstein on down, you don't want some idealist -- Occupy Progressive or Tea Party Conservative, doesn't matter -- questioning the rationality of it all. You want the type that feels Colonel Jessup was Right and that we are only one good election away from fixing the current unpleasantness with countries direction.

Anonymous said...

Is there a Nuclear Plant there to power up all of the computers / keep them running in case of some sort of power grid emergency?

Anonymous said...

The water can be recirculated, much like the coolant in your car.

I'm guessing the NSA wants to keep water usage secret because it wants to keep all details of the facility secret. The more you know, the more you can deduce.

David said...

Answer: personnel. But maybe also: stupidity. It's like when American newspapers in WW2 patiotically suspended reporting the weather (Daffy Duck voice: "That's classified information!").

bluto said...

All data centers use evaporative (water) cooling, which means water use is directly related to how much heat they're generating (employee use is almost certainly incidental) and heat output is a very good proxy for computing power if you have some guess about efficiency (which Intel publishes with each part they make).

peterike said...

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink...

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Jamie said...

My initial guess was "so that we don't find out how many people are they waterboarding at the same time".

Anonymous said...

that's what they show you above ground. everything really cool in intel is underground.

Melendwyr said...

I for one welcome our new mermaid overlords.

Anonymous said...

Toilet paper is also a proxy for your BMI, but I have a feeling the correlation isn't very tight.

Hepp said...

"2) Mormons are the last patriotic, conservative throw-back to the 1950's demographic we have left. If you're the NSA spying on everyone from Diane Feinstein on down, you don't want some idealist -- Occupy Progressive or Tea Party Conservative, doesn't matter -- questioning the rationality of it all. You want the type that feels Colonel Jessup was Right and that we are only one good election away from fixing the current unpleasantness with countries direction."

They're not as moronic as you think. Mormons have a persecution complex towards the larger society, and it's grown as the culture has become more liberal. If they were useful patsies, you'd see Mormons volunteering for the military in large numbers. Does anyone have statistics on this? I don't, but anecdotally I think that they rarely serve. Of course, they probably don't produce people who would pull a Snowden either.

Scots-Irish appalachian types and probably closer to what you're describing.

Hepp said...

Anyway, Steve, are you going to give us the answer to this? Cause some people say that water usage indicates number of people rather than machines, with others saying the opposite. And all the "Anonymouses" seem equally credible from here.

scottlocklin said...

Google the three words, "side channel attack" for more insights as to why. It's kind of amazing, but one can tell quite a bit about what they're doing based on power usage and cooling.

Anonymous said...

Assuming 1.2 mgal/day is used for evaporative cooling, with the high TDS of groundwater in the Salt Lake area (TDS ~ 500 ppm) that's a whopping 2.5 tons of deposits each day.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Suppose we discovered they're using no water at all. Then we'd know that this was a fake facility and the real one is somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

I googled "side channel attack". I'd have thought you'd need to be pretty close to the kit to monitor that kind of device-specific power usage change. And I'd have thought - though I don't know - that the kit would be pretty well isolated - physically and logically - from public networks.

I think "The more you know, the more you can deduce" is a more likely reason. Admittedly I'm arguing from a position of ignorance.

Anonymous said...

"with the high TDS of groundwater in the Salt Lake area (TDS ~ 500 ppm) that's a whopping 2.5 tons of deposits each day"

It's Data Salt Mining !

Graham said...

I think De Selby, Flann O'Brien's mad scientist who was 'harried by the police for hoarding water' works there.

YoungModern said...

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/2068032/

Disregard noise about Mormons being 2% of he population. They really only number 2.5 million active members stateside. The rest are low hanging fruit they hook into baptism with those 19 year-old "elders" that don't adjust stringent Mormon lifestyle and quirky culture. When you consider that they are listed as serving at their population representation when their true number is only 40% of that you'll see that they are among the well over-represented military demographics. 11 Medal of Honours for a people who sat out the Civil War (when most of those were awarded for rescuing the flag) is nothing to sneeze at.

Mormons are insular and they do harbour a persecution complex. However, their theology also mandates that constitutional America will be their organ of influence throughout the world. They teach their young that God inspired the constitution and that the founding fathers have all converted to Mormonism in the afterlife. They would class any betrayal of America to her enemies as a bona fide sin of the highest order, which applies equally for their international membership. Not that they're above playing game of thrones with internal factions to wrest influence.

Gabriel Marks said...

"But 1.xyz M gallons of water is much easier to come across is...well...almost any other state in the Union"

Last I checked, Utah has the highest water usage per capita. The nearby mountains are a GIANT water-collection system and make water there fairly cheap, despite it being a desert.