Why The NSA is Trying to Keep Its Water Usage a Secret?

The list of secrets held by the NSA is a never-ending one. Latest in the list includes its refusal to disclose the amount of water it pumps in its new data center at Bluffdale, Utah.

An aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP
An aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.

According to a letter sent to officials in Utah. The NSA has refused to divulge the details about its water usage citing national security as one of the reasons. The officials are considering whether to release the data to the Salt Lake Tribune, which asked for the data a few months back.

Nate Carslile, a reporter at The Tribune made a request for the records in May; he did get the files but with water usage data redacted.

This sets alarm bells ringing! What the agency trying to hide.

In response to the Tribune’s public records request, the NSA’s Associate Director for Policy and Records David Sherman said: 

  • By computing the water usage rate, one could ultimately determine the computing power and capabilities of the Utah Data Center,” He further added, “Armed with this information, one could then deduce how much intelligence NSA is collecting and maintaining.”

While this may appear plausible, something is definitely amiss here. As Wired explains,

  • Data center engineers can get rough ideas of compute power based on how much power a building consumes, but figuring this out on water is another matter. Some data centers, like Facebook’s facility in Prineville, Oregon, use custom-made swamp coolers to mist the air and cool down servers. Others push hot air into evaporator cooling towers, which are kept cold by running water.” 

Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University says:

  • There are many different ways to cool a data center… Without knowing more about the actual facility then I don’t think anyone’s going to give you solid numbers.”

Water usage has become a contentious issue for the NSA; an anti-government group called the Tenth Amendment wants the water supply to the agency terminated whereas the local newspaper seeking the data needs it for an informed debate about water as a resource and the data center’s impact on it.

We are the second driest state in the nation,” he says. “We’re just in the habit of accounting for water in this state because we have to. There’s just not enough water.” 

Carslile had appealed for the Bluffdale’s denial of the records request and as per the latest available news, Utah’s State Records Committee has ordered the city of Bluffdale to release their water records relating to the NSA’s new data center.

The committee voted (5–0) in favor of Salt Lake Tribune’s appeal; its member Ernest Rowley strongly contended that water belongs to the state and there should be an accounting of the state’s water.

  • It is the public’s water that we are talking about here. It is not a private water interest. I think there is a great public interest in knowing how much water is being consumed,” said Rowley.

The panel also voted to reduce the fees the city had charged the newspaper for digging up the records from USD 767 to USD 285.

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