The Government Wants to Know What It Doesn't Know

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"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

-- Donald Rumsfeld

The problem with the U.S. government not knowing what it wants to know, as well as worrying that it doesn't know enough to know what it doesn't know, is that said government has the power to try to find out. And when I write "power" I mean resources and motivation that make our government . . . the best that money can buy . . . effectively unstoppable.

In 2005 the New York Times exposed the Bush administration's secret authorization in 2002 allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on communications within the U.S. (prior to this order, the NSA was restricted to intercepting overseas communications only).

Despite a huge public outcry and legal action started by the ACLU and the EFF, rather than stopping or even slowing the warrantless wiretapping program the NSA has expanded and accelerated enormously. If you should doubt the seriousness of these intelligence gathering projects consider the NSA's Utah Data Center.

With a $2 billion budget, 1 million square feet of data center, and a claimed storage capacity of a yottabyte, the Utah Data Center will be pushing the envelope of Big Data.

In case you're wondering what a yottabyte might be, a recent Wired article about the Utah Data Center explained, "A yottabyte is a septillion bytes - so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude." If a septillion doesn't help, consider that a yottabyte equals 10 followed by 24 zeros worth of bytes.

To give that figure a bit more perspective, it has been estimated by Cisco that by 2015 the Internet will generate something around 966 exabytes (something less than a zettabyte or 10 to the 21) of data annually. The Utah Data Center will be able to store 1,000 times that volume! And to analyze it and crack encrypted content they have computers that, it is claimed, are capable of exaflop (10 to the 18 floating point operations per second) performance.

This power and capacity combined with the ever expanding surveillance network means that pretty much everything you write, everywhere you go online, every YouTube video you watch, every Facebook posting you make, every cellphone call you make or receive (including from where and to whom and where the recipient is), every text you send and receive, every public place you walk through ... it will all be captured, stored, analyzed, categorized, and filed ... quite possibly forever.

What you should be worried about is -- and I know I've said it before but it bears repeating -- mission creep, the inevitable over-reach by the government when they have control of massive and highly detailed data. Just consider how law enforcement, with the complicity of the cell service providers, has abused cell phone tracking turning tracking into an on-demand, everyday activity.

I'd put money on a future government initiative that will require access into corporate networks to provide deeper monitoring than can be done externally. Hell, that might already be underway! It might and how would you know if it was? It would be something you don't know you don't know.

Gibbs doesn't know in Ventura, Calif. If you do, let him know at and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "The Government Wants to Know What It Doesn't Know" was originally published by Network World.

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