5 astonishing facts about the NSA

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 26, 2015

Do you get a warm cuddly feeling deep inside when you think about the NSA valiantly protecting our freedom and way of life against evil hordes of terrorists?

Sure, it has strong-armed America’s top tech firms, hacked into their systems when this failed to work, undermined international encryption standards, lied to Congress about the efficacy of its tactics, cooperated with foreign partners to evade legal restrictions on spying on US citizens, infected tens of thousands of computers worldwide with malware, and much much more.

But… hey… you know …. TERRORISTS!


Okay, it may be on mission to spy on just about everything everybody (including US citizens) does online or over the phone. This includes tracking our emails, SMS text messages, phone calls, IM messages, VoIP calls, and internet activity, but such pervasive and untargeted assaults on our privacy are essential in order to preserve our freedom (and combating terrorists of course!)

So next time you are hanging out with our buddies, drinking beer, and high-fiving these stalwart defenders of all that is good and true, here are five astonishing facts you can share with them so they can sleep better at night.

1. No Such Agency

You can’t be a ‘spook agency’ without a suitably sinister name. Although formed by President Truman back in 1952 (five years after Truman authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)), the NSA was for a long time very shy about its very existence, earning it the unofficial title of ‘No Such Agency’. How cool is that?

spook alert

It was only in 1975 that the US government publicly acknowledged the Agency, when the Church Committee hearings held in the wake of the Watergate scandal revealed that the NSA had cooperated with the UK’s GCHQ to spy on anti-Vietnam War protesters, and had illegally placed wiretaps on targeted American citizens.

We find it very reassuring to know the Agency was tirelessly working to protect us against such obviously commie traitor scum, but not everyone agreed. It was following these hearing that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978, with the aim of limiting mass surveillance of US citizens.

2. Biggest employer of mathematicians in the world

Obviously, if you are going to break or subvert encryption standards in order to spy on everyone, you need some brainy boffins on your side, and although exact figures are difficult to ascertain, the NSA is widely thought to be the world’s largest single employer of mathematicians.

nsa mathematics

Working for the NSA is regarded as a highly desirable (and lucrative) job among young mathematics graduates, although some spoil-sports in the profession have spoken out against this brain-grab, urging their colleagues consider the ethics of what they do These have even gone so far as to suggest mathematicians apply their considerable talents to ‘better causes’! Pah! Luckily for us, most top-of-the-class boffins are more than happy to ignore such moral objections to their work, and to go where the money is!

3. Costs 11 $Billion per year

What price freedom? Well, apart from our privacy, around $56 billion a year (total US government ‘Black Budget’ funding per year for surveillance and counterterrorism). Of this the NSA officially receives $10.8 billion, although it is clear that indirect support through the Pentagon and other government agencies amounts to a great deal more.

Furthermore, the NSA is has recently finished constructing a huge new data storage and processing facility in Salt Lake City, at a cost of between $1.5 and $2 billion. This facility covers some 1 million square feet, with an additional 900,000 square feet devoted to technical support and administrative staff (of which there will be only 200). Requiring 1.7 million gallons of water per day and 65 megawatts of electricity continuously, it is estimated that running costs are around $40 million per year.

NSA data center

So it might be true that the NSA is not light on your tax dollars, but hey, don’t you sleep better at night?

4. Collects 2.1 million gigabytes of data every hour

And nothing is more guaranteed to make us sleep well than some reassuringly awesome numbers. According to a 2013 document on the NSA’s official website, the Agency collects 1,826 petabytes of data every day, of which it ‘touches’ about 1.6 percent (around 29 petabytes, or 29 million gigabytes). The document tries to downplay this volume data by noting that,

‘The net effect is that NSA analysts look at 0.00004 percent of the world’s traffic in conducing their mission – that’s less than one part in a million. Put another way, if a standard basketball court represented the global communications environment, NSA’s collection would be represented by an area smaller than a dime on that basketball court.’


But this doesn’t have us fooled; it remains a staggering amount of information! It should also be remembered with its history of dishonesty creative interpretation over data collection, the NSA’s official figures should be taken with a pinch of salt, and that thanks to the recent completion of its Utah data facility, its data collection and storage capabilities have been greatly expanded. It’s always good to know that the US of A is biggest and best at everything!

5. The NSA is un-American

According to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin,

‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

stars and stripes

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says,

‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So yeah, the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs rides roughshod over both the libertarian principles upon which the United Sates was founded, and the most fundamental constitutional protections its citizens hold so dear… but … you know… terrorists…

Of course, using a good VPN service can help prevent the NSA blanket spying on anything you do online by hiding your IP address and encrypting your internet connection, but why on Earth would you want to do that..?

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

2 responses to “5 astonishing facts about the NSA

  1. Dear Douglas,

    When we have a groundswell of taxpayers [and terrorists for that matter] AND the bipartisan support of both liberals and conservatives – as libertarians – to cut back or discontinue this data collection, how does the NSA snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat REPEATEDLY and manage to get these programs extended?

    Is it as simple as the J. Edgar Hoover syndrome in which the FBI had the dirt on everybody? Or is there something much more sinister going on? I don’t want conspiracy theory if at all possible. But this puzzles me mightily.

    Great article, cute cartoon.

    -Russ Russell

    1. Hi Russ,

      I think the simple truth is that the kind of person who becomes a politician (at least the sort who gets anywhere near obtaining a government position) is the kind of person who believes in authority and the apparatus needed to maintain that authority. It is, after all, a system that has clearly served their own and like-minded friends’ interests very well so far! There is therefore very political little will to change a status quo designed to benefit precisely the people who have the theoretical power to change it…

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