As you probably know, "the cloud" in Internet parlance isn't an actual cloud. The Internet's cloud refers to remote storage of information and the network that connects to it. What tech companies pitch as a nebulous intangibility is really just stacks and stacks of servers with direct connections to the rest of the world. Things that take up physical space, in other words.
For the National Security Agency to do its spying, they need servers. They need buildings, perhaps ones clad in black, patrolled by guards, in remote places across the country. Indeed, the NSA is building a massive facility in Utah. But they need big buildings to hold the data infrastructure. But just how big, physically, is the NSA's privacy invasion? We decided to try and figure that out.
But to answer that question, we needed to answer three other questions. What information is being collected in the surveillance operations? How much of that information is the NSA housing? And, how much space would saving that much information actually take up? What we learned from talking to a variety of experts is that the calculus is not simple, and any answers are largely estimates. But we got answers.
What information is being stored?
Early last month, even while he was finalizing his discussions with Edward Snowden, The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald reported on a conversation between Tim Clemente, a former FBI agent, and CNN host Carol Costello. In the interview about the Boston Marathon investigation, as seen at right, Clemente makes the claim that "all digital communications are — there's a way to look at digital communications in the past." Costello refers to a previous appearance in which Clemente claimed the government could access phone calls, even "exactly what was said in that conversation."
This is an important claim for two reasons. The first is that Clemente, who also served on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, suggests a massive breadth of information collection. The second is that he doesn't say who is actually collecting the data, which we'll come back to.
Clemente indicates that entire phone calls are being recorded and stored, which is a far stronger claim than that Verizon is sharing metadata with the government. Both from a privacy standpoint and for our calculations. Metadata on a call — the number from which it originated, who it was placed to, duration, location information — is tiny. Perhaps a few hundred bytes could contain all of it. But a call is much larger — and as the call goes on, the amount of storage space it takes up increases dramatically, running into multiple megabytes. Same thing with email: a text email message is small; embed a photo, and it gets much bigger; embed a video, and it gets much, much, much bigger.
So if Clemente is right, and the government has access to "all digital communications" — videos, calls, audio recordings, emails, photos — that's taking up a lot of physical space somewhere. Which brings us to the second reason Clemente's claim is important, and to our second question.
How much of that information is the NSA housing? ...
Lengthy article: please click on link at The Atlantic Wire
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