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Storing Data, Burning Carbon: The Ecology of a National Security State

Storing Data, Burning Carbon: The Ecology of a National Security State
Tue, 6/18/2013 - by Peter Rugh

Continuing revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have cast a spotlight on widespread U.S. government surveillance of Americans and others around the globe, just as the NSA completes a new data farm in Bluffdale, Utah, set to be the largest spy center in the country.

The servers at the innocuously titled Utah Data Facility will have the capacity to store “100 years worth of the worldwide communications, phones and emails,” according to former NSA technical director-turned-whistleblower William Binney. But the ill-examined ecological impacts of the site, and other smaller but similar NSA data hording facilities like it, is far from sustainable.

The $2 billion Utah data farm, set to be completed this fall, has a LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, according to NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines. However, the site plans, which are publicly available through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reveal that the indiscriminate and warrantless collection of personal data from millions of people without suspicion of wrongdoing not only violates the U.S. Constitution — it is also an extreme waste of water and electricity.

A 65-megawatt electrical substation (nearly enough voltage to illuminate Salt Lake City, 26 miles north) will provide the Utah spy hub with what the NSA describes as “technical power.” “As machines are installed, we will ramp up to 65MW as a constant usage,” confirmed Vines. Meanwhile, the facility's servers require approximately 1.5 million gallons of cooling-water a day in a region where water is scarce.

“The security infrastructure of an increasingly oppressive and worrisome state is powered by fossil fuel extraction,” says Jesse Fruhwirth with the environmental activist group Peaceful Uprising. “The 65 megawatts of energy will come from burning coal in Utah, a huge contributor to localized pollution and also to global climate change. On top of that fossil fuels are being used in conjunction with consuming life-giving water in a region where every drop is valuable.”

One of the reasons the NSA reportedly chose Utah as the site of its new mega-spy hub is because energy is cheap in the state. Fruhwirth says that's because local authorities have worked to make Utah, a state rich in both fossil fuels and uranium, an energy exporter. This effort has required the ever greater extraction of natural resources – fracking for oil and gas, and now tar sands mining, as well as the construction of a new nuclear plant. By adding the equivalent of a small city to the grid, Fruhwirth fears the Utah Data Center will intensify the state's ongoing energy boom.

“Utah wants to be a real A-Team player in the game of building the security apparatus,” he says “That's where you see Utah not just being happy with fracking and coal. They want to move on to tar sands and nuclear power.”

Yet servers at the NSA might not be as wasteful as some of those companies from which it is mining data. Common mythology holds that by reducing consumption of paper, the Internet has helped curb carbon emissions. But companies like Google, Facebook and Skype — who we now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, fertilize the NSA's data farms — run on servers powered at maximum capacity even at hours of low traffic, squandering “90 percent of the electricity they pull off the grid,” according to a New York Times report last fall. The same article noted that the paper industry used 67 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2011, versus 76 billion kilowatt-hours consumed by data centers.

Jon Koomey, an energy-efficiency computing expert at Stanford University says it is impossible to gauge exactly how much actual power the Utah Data Center will waste since so little information is publicly available. But he suspects its servers will be more efficient than their private sector counterparts as are servers used by other government agencies.

“What they are probably doing is what's called 'scientific computing,” says Koomey. “That's to distinguish it from the computing that a company like Google or Ebay does which varies over the course of the day depending on the demand from customers. Scientific computing applications pretty much run the computers all the time. In terms of data utilization, they're much more efficient than a lot of the data centers out in the business world.”

Koomey speculated that a comparable data collection model might be that of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's data center in Wyoming. Like the NSA, the Energy Lab collects and stores large troves of data globally; however, the Lab harvests information pertaining to weather patterns for the development of climate change models, not personal information.

Despite the NSA's efficiency in collecting our private data, the agency is a key component of a highly polluting national defense complex that includes the CIA, the Pentagon and other government bodies, along with a plethora of private contractors working in conjunction with one another in arenas hidden from public view.

And as the vast surveillance net has tightened around Americans, the national defense complex has likewise embroiled itself in new, increasingly covert global conflicts in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan while arming rebels in Syria, continuing to occupy Afghanistan and maintaining a large presence in Iraq. The Pentagon does not disclose its massive level of carbon-dioxide emissions, but the bountiful array of fighter jets, aircraft carriers, tanks, submarines and military bases it controls make it perhaps the largest institutional carbon emitter on earth.

Critics charge that the U.S. military's fuel-guzzling imperial presence around the planet has more to with securing further fossil fuel resources than with keeping Americans safe. “Nearly 1,000 US military bases trace an arc from the Andes to North Africa across the Middle East to Indonesia, the Philippines and North Korea, sweeping over all major oil resources – all related, in part, to projecting force for the sake of energy security,” argues H. Patricia Hynes, a former environmental health professor at Boston University.

As of 2008, the Iraq War alone had generated 141 metric tons of carbon, or 25 million automobiles' worth of emissions, according toOil Change International. The war's $3 trillion price tag, the group says, would have been enough to cover "all of the global investments in renewable power generation."

Peaceful Uprising's Jesse Fruhwirth says the fresh revelations of NSA spying, along with the huge data center the agency is constructing in Utah, serve to further demonstrate “how joining movements to stop fossil fuel extraction is also a contribution to peace and civil liberties.”

“Every barrel of oil, every pound of coal that's extracted,” says Fruhwirth, “is being used, in part, to control people and maintain an economic situation in which an infinitely small group of people controls all the wealth.”

While the national security state has a literal ecological impact, it operates in a kind of a feedback loop comparable to the bio-geochemical cycles most Americans learn about in elementary school science. As the US security and defense apparatus exacerbates climate change through the burning of fossil fuels, it is meanwhile preparing for the unrest that might ensue from the collapse of the ecosystem it is straining — by focusing its lens on peaceful environmental activists above all others.

As Nafeez Ahmed detailed in the Guardian last week, "since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defense planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis - or all three."

According to a 2011 annual report from Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor that employed Edward Snowden until he blew the whistle on the NSA's massive spying operation, the firm has assisted in the development of Unified Quest, an annual exercise that, according to the document, “helps military and civilian leaders envision the future and apply their best thinking to address both the challenges of future armed conflict and critical issues facing our security and national interests.”

This vision of the future along these lines looks similar to the post-apocalyptic scenes of privation and authoritarianism that form the backdrop of the film Children of Men, which include plans for domestic military intervention should civil unrest breakout in the U.S. in the fallout of ecologic and/or economic collapse.

Simultaneously, US domestic surveillance conducted by both law enforcement, corporate entities and private spy firms has, as Ahmed writes, “systematically targeted peaceful environment activists including anti-fracking activists across the US, such as the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, Rising Tide North America, the People's Oil & Gas Collaborative, and Greenpeace.”

A list of Booz Allen Hamilton's corporate clients is not publicly available, but it's no secret that the firm is involved at high levels in the energy sector. According to the company's website, Booz counts both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department as clients along with private entities, and specializes in “nuclear, clean coal [sic], oil, natural gas, and alternative fuel technologies, markets, and policy... [helping] clients consider organizational, operational, environmental, and economic impacts of potential solutions.” We might have to wait for a future batch of leaks from Snowden before we can unpack what this literally entails.

In the interim, Fruhwirth thinks it is time that Americans begin to consider “what it would look like and what kind of community strength and resilience would be needed to engage in direct action against the NSA's spy center” in Bluffdale and other hubs of surveillance, domination, war — and ecological ruin.

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