Sunday, January 4, 2009

Data Centers and Snooping

In two visits to the National Security Agency's British intelligence station at Menwith Hill over the last 12 years, the wonderful women at WoMenwith Hill have clued us in to the way the base is linked to Hunters Stone, a telephone switching center near Harrogate owned by BT plc (formerly British Telecom). The bulk of British inter-LATA phone calls could simply be sucked up by NSA wholesale. But Hunters Stone was designed for a time when voice circuit-switching still mattered.

For several years now, the NSA has claimed to have run out of storage space in the Maryland area, and had called for potential employees to sign up for a future "Storage Station Freedom" in Colorado. While those of us watching the watchers spent months trying to figure out whether such a facility might be near Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora or near the storage corridor on US 36 near Boulder, we failed to notice two things: City officials from San Antonio, Texas were going to Fort Meade to push for new NSA facilities to augment Medina Annex, a major North American crypto-training and listening post. And San Antonio was also lobbying Microsoft to bring a new data center to San Antonio, touting Texas' cheap electricity as a factor.

A new article from Greg Schwartz at San Antonio Current claims that NSA decided to locate a storage facility, probably the elusive "Freedom," at an abandoned Sony semiconductor plant not far from Medina. And the agency made its decision soon after Microsoft located a data center nearby.

These days, telephone switching centers represent the ancien regime. Most consumer data, including voice telephony, is carried using the Internet Protocol, and the aggregation centers of choice are the data centers performing routing, switching, and peering. These are the centers managed by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, located in nondescript buildings and using the amount of power of a small city. These data centers are now NSA's favorite neighbors for obvious reasons, and the Microsoft-NSA relationship in San Antonio is the type of thing we should expect to see in many cities, both within the U.S. and worldwide.

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