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NSA Plans To Cool New Datacenter With Wastewater

Agency under fire for its data collection initiatives reportedly inks deal to use treated wastewater for cooling its future datacenter in Maryland.

The NSA may have a disdain for privacy, but it apparently cares about the environment.

According to a recent report in the Baltimore Sun, the controversial agency has cut a deal to use wastewater supplied by Maryland's Howard County to cool its huge datacenter under construction at Forte Meade. Once the facility opens in 2016, it will use five million gallons of reclaimed wastewater a day, wastewater that would otherwise be dumped into the nearby Little Patuxent River.

The Sun reported that the NSA has agreed to cover the $40 million it will take to build the needed pump station, and will pay up to $2 million additionally each year for the wastewater.

It seems unlikely, however, that instituting such environmentally friendly practices will do much to deflect the intense scrutiny the NSA has been under since the revelations of the agency's massive initiative to collect data on American citizens, detailed in the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In fact, numerous reports, including a recent one from US News and World Report, detail how anti-surveillance activists are trying to counter the NSA's data-collection efforts by getting states to refuse the agency access to local water and power supplies. That effort has been focused on the NSA's just-opened one-million-square-foot data center in Utah that reportedly requires 1.7 million gallons of water a day for cooling and has been the subject of much hand-wringing. Maryland figures to become the next battleground.

"Maryland is one of the most crucial states in this national campaign," Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Washington, told the Sun. "Because Congress has been so abysmally dysfunctional and inactive in the oversight arena for the last 10 years, the municipal checks and balances are really all that we the people have had an opportunity to exercise."

[Read about Yahoo's decision to encrypt all data moving between its datacenters in "Yahoo Encrypts Data After Reports of NSA Snooping."]

And it's not just privacy activists who are taking action to reduce the NSA's reach. A recent survey of 300 IT decision-makers at companies in the U.K. and Canada commissioned by co-hosting provider Peer 1 found that one-fourth of respondents say they're moving data out of the U.S. specifically to get out of the NSA's data-collection crosshairs. The findings are probably indicative of sentiment throughout Europe, where nations generally have much stronger privacy safeguards than the U.S.

Whether the NSA's efforts to employ environmentally friendly power and cooling efforts at its data centers will help to stem the anti-NSA sentiment spurred by the Snowden documents remains to be seen, said a prominent privacy researcher.

"I applaud the NSA for taking a positive stance on the use of wastewater to cool its new data center," Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of The Ponemon Institute, a respected privacy and information security research organization, said via email. "However, it is ironic to me that the NSA can be hailed for its environmental ethics and despised for its information ethics. Only time will tell whether positive deeds balance out the negative."

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