The Tinfoil Hat Tech Behind Government Survellience


John Joy

By John Joy ’18, Tech Desk Section Editor

Ever since government surveillance broke out in 2013, the entire nerd community has been up in arms against it, calling it a violation of our most basic constitutional rights and the first steps to the world becoming George Orwell’s 1984. Say what you will about how it’s used, but the NSA has produced some spectacularly powered and bone chilling technology in order to figure out what strange monstrosities you have ordered from Domino’s.  The mobile phone has become a staple of any modern human’s life over the past ten years, allowing me have Morgan Freeman guide me to my destination while simultaneously blaring late 90’s techno music that only three people in the universe have ever listened to. The NSA was quick to capitalize on these blutonium boy blaring glass bricks, and turned them into personal tracking devices.  They could use your phone’s GPS and track you that way, but that would have been too easy (not to mention most phones used by prime suspects come from an era when neon was still in), so instead they can use protocols on your phone’s simcard to ping different cellphone towers, allowing law enforcement to track one down within a radius of one hundred or so meters without even putting extra stress on one’s phone. If you aren’t wearing a tinfoil hat after that, NSA servers store roughly a year’s worth of location data for everyone, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.


Even though they have only a few Kilobytes per person, three-hundred eighteen million people worth of travel history adds up fast. This is where the NSA has really stepped too far in my eyes. They’ve decided to dive into the pocketbooks of taxpayers to build data centers that required so many hard drives that consumer price spiked ten or so percent.  The NSA’s flagship storage center in Bluffdale, Texas could be considered both a feat of human munificence and malevolence due to the tremendous feat of engineering required to bring it to existence. This facility was built over 1200 miles away from anything that could even come close to providing much needed water (more on that later) to it. Although that didn’t actually matter to its designers, because they intended for it to be a completely self-sufficient entity, with its power plant and closed loop plumbing system. This facility is based off of one Cray XC30 supercomputer which is capable of over 100 petaflops (a FLOP is the computer equivalent of horsepower) which is roughly one billions times as powerful as a Microsoft Surface. Couple that with miles of racks on racks on racks of hard drives, this facility would need another ice age to happen if it were to stay cool. But the geeks over at the NSA came up with a computer nerd’s dream; a mile long liquid cooling system.  The thing is, this data center is rapidly going through water and producing a lot of pollution due to a mix of limited availability of clean energy, and the public’s irrational fear of nuclear energy.  This data center has a similar carbon footprint of an oil refinery, yet does little more than store useless data.  For example, the fact that you’ve read this article is more than likely stored deep within a server somewhere in Utah, although the odds of NSA digging up are lower than getting struck by lightning.


I generally deem most of the NSA’s actions morally acceptable because they have very little effect on day to day life, and most complaints come from people who think they are more important to the government than they really are. If anyone uses a Google or Apple product than they have been held to a similar level of data collection for years. Yet in my humble opinion, the NSA’s newfound obsession with facial recognition is the first instance of the NSA stooping to truly Orwellinion levels of government involvement.  The NSA has been requesting bulk photos and videos from the entire internet, and their only requirement is that they need a list of who’s in them. Using the same basic tech that in that stupid dog Snapchat filter, the government can identify your face within a matter of minutes when provided with a photo. To take matters from scary to keeping a plastic surgeon on retainer, given time the NSA needs far less than a picture of your face to figure out who you are. Remember “Jihadi John”, the ISIS spokesperson who beheaded so many innocent civilians? The US managed to identify him with nothing more than his eyes and a distorted voice.  This software could be applied to security cameras, which can send back everything they see right to NSA.


(Image is a template found within Snapchat source code)