The NSA is building a new “data center” in Bluffdale, UT outside of Salt Lake City. And while plenty of people think their acronym really stands for Never Say Anything, one of their former employees has said plenty that informed a March article about the new facility at wired.com. The long and short of it: our security-minded friends will be able to tap into and store pretty much every email, text, phone call, bank transfer and retail transaction. As in all of them. Yottabytes of information compiled at exaflop speed. The question is, will they actually be able to sift through all of the chaff (think billions of grocery store purchases, bar tabs and online porn membership transactions not to mention your daughter’s texts about Jimmy’s hair and how cute Leslie’s boots were) to get to any kernels of actionable data? That’s what Holman Jenkins is wondering after the Aurora massacre . . .
In other words, once this $2 billion dollar facility is up and collecting, the potential for harm is obvious. But could it actually do anyone any good – as in identifying the next James Holmes out there?
The Colorado shooter, Mr. Holmes, dropped out of school via email. He tried to join a shooting range with phone calls and emails going back and forth. He bought weapons and bomb-making equipment. He placed orders at various websites for a large quantity of ammunition. Aside from privacy considerations, is there anything in principle to stop government computers, assuming they have access to the data, from algorithmically detecting the patterns of a mass shooting in the planning stages?
Oh right, privacy considerations. Yeah well those have pretty much gone the way of the Oldsmobile. And while few will mourn the Cutlass Ciera, plenty of folks like their privacy – or what’s left of it.
But back to the matter at hand.
After the Aurora theater massacre, it might be fair to ask what kinds of things the NSA has programmed its algorithms to look for. Did it, or could it have, picked up on Mr. Holmes’s activities? And if not, what exactly are we getting for the money we spend on data mining?
The Bluffdale facility will go online some time next year. But even knowing that all that high desert computing power is being shepherded by a small army of the best bunch of boffins tax dollars can buy, we think we’ll still keep a mohaska strapped to our waist. As Americans have discovered time and time again, relying on the competence and efficiency of our intelligence community is a great way to get yourself killed.