The NSA Would Like Your Sewage

When residents of Howard County, Maryland, flush their toilets, their sewage will soon end up at the NSA's new computer center several miles away. Collecting and storing so much data has been generating a whole lotta heat for the NSA—we mean this quite literally—and the agency's now buying treated wastewater to cool their equipment.

The agency's High Performance Computing Center-2, which broke ground in May, will pay $2 million a year for treated wastewater from the Maryland county when it opens up for business, analyzing cybersecurity threats, in 2016. The county is also in talks to sell their wastewater to Dreyer's Ice Cream, according to the Washington Post. Wastewater once dumped into the river has become a million-dollar commodity.

The wastewater deal is a reminder that the NSA, which increasingly seems to operate outside our laws, is at least bound by the laws of physics. The agency's mega data center in Utah, for example, has been bedeviled by electronic failures.

And, if privacy advocates can't change what data the NSA collects, they are targeting the tangible structures of the NSA. Critics of the NSA's surveillance are watching the wastewater deal closely. A coalition called OffNow has written legislation prohibiting local governments from giving "material support" to the agency. In an act of protest, a privacy rights group has also adopted a stretch of highway outside of the NSA's Utah data center to carry picket signs while picking up litter.

It's easy to forget that NSA's shadowy activities have a physical infrastructure—and even an environmental footprint. From a purely environmental standpoint, at least, using wastewater rather than drinking water to cool centers is a net good. (Google has made a similar switch in one of its data centers.) Sewage treatment centers are increasingly sending their wastewater to cool industrial plants or water fields rather than dumping it into the environment. In the parched American west, there's even a movement for drinking it. It's not just NSA who wants your wastewater now. [Washington Post]

Photo credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer