Why The NSA Is Even Keeping Its Water Bill a Secret

It's no surprise that the NSA isn't exactly forthcoming when it comes to pretty much everything, but this latest development seems a little extreme even for them: The NSA is refusing to disclose its water bill. But at least this time, there might actually be sound logic behind its discretion—and that's what makes it so troubling.

More specifically, its the agency's newly opened data center in Bluffdale, Utah that's being extra sneaky with its service bills. The issue first came to light last May, when Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle requested records relating to the data center. What came back had nearly all data relating to water usage redacted. Why go through all that trouble for something as innocuous as a water bill? Apparently, that information is more revealing than it seem.

According to a letter filed by David Sherman, the NSA associate director for policy and records:

By computing the water usage rate, one could ultimately determine the computing power and capabilities of the Utah Data Center. Armed with this information, one could then deduce how much intelligence NSA is collecting and maintaining, and this clearly relates to ne of NSA's core missions, which is the collection of foreign intelligence.

While Sherman's argument makes sense, there is something of an information gap. Presumably, the idea is that since it's possible to get an idea of computing power based on overall power consumption, knowledge of water use could compromise secrecy. But as Wired explains, judging power consumption on water use isn't as cut and dry as the NSA would have it seem:

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 evaporative cooling towers, which are kept cold by running water.

Both of these methods involve water utilized in two very different ways; it'd be nearly impossible to make an accurate power estimate without knowing exactly how the center's particular cooling system worked.

This isn't the only factor causing concern around the NSA's furtive water use, though. The NSA chose to plop their data center in Utah, which just so happens to be the second driest state in the nation, and with limited water resources comes some pretty heavily enforced restrictions. And if Utah isn't privy to exactly how much water the center is using, there's no way they can know when the NSA is sucking up more than their fair share.

We might not have to wait for long to find out, though. Just this morning, the Utah State Records Committee rejected the NSA's argument and ordered that the records be released. Hopefully, assuming the ruling isn't overturned, we could soon get a peak at exactly what the NSA was so desperate to hide. Our money's on personal hot tubs. [KUTV, Wired]

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