Monday, February 3, 2014

Monday Musings (February 3, 2014) -- Maybe Our Descendants Will Thank The NSA!

One of the basic requirements for genealogy research is that the data needs to be out there to be searched or re-searched and analyzed or re-analyzed; so preservation of records and data is a critical necessity for the ability of descendants to research their ancestors.  Just recall the frustration most of us have felt at one time or another when we learn that vital records were destroyed by fire, flood or other disaster (1890 Census records anyone??).

Most of us would be willing to pay a dear price indeed if we were able to access records today that would tell us the daily activities of our ancestors at the time of the Revolutionary War or the Civil War or even, in this year of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, what our relatives and ancestors were doing in the early years of the last century.  How many of us pore over existing census data, vital records, diaries, photographs, land records, tax records, city directories, etc., trying to piece together as complete a picture as possible about the lives of our ancestors?

Last Friday, January 31, 2014, the TED Radio Hour hosted by Guy Raz on National Public Radio, interviewed Mikko Hypponen, a cyber security expert who has assisted law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Europe and Asia with cyber crime cases.

Mr. Hypponen described in his interview a government facility in Bluffdale, Utah (south of Salt Lake City) that is the largest data center in the world. The building alone is about 140,000 square meters in size making it the equivalent of about five Super-Walmarts put together. However, it is not the size of the building that truly boggles the mind; it is the size of what it houses. According to Mr. Hypponen, the Bluffdale facility is the first storage space designed and built to house and preserve a "Yottabyte" of data. A yottabyte is so huge that it is hard to even conceive of the amount of data it would hold.  The explanation in the interview was that if a personal computer can hold say 60 gigabytes of data, it would take about 16 trillion such personal computers to hold a yottabyte of data! And, the cost of keeping such a huge amount of data is actually fairly cheap when it is estimated the electricity bill would run to mere tens of millions of dollars per year!

All this got me thinking about what this yottabyte of data could be used for. 

Mr. Hypponen explained two facets of this brave new world of data collection and storage that really provides food for thought for genealogists. First, at present U.S. intelligence agencies only have the legal right to monitor foreigners, but some 96% of the world are foreigners with respect to the U.S. and inconceivbly large amounts of data from and to them pass through or terminate in the U.S. -- so lots of data involving U.S. citizens gets caught up in the sweep. Second, Mr. Hypponen observes that we have now arrived at the point where storing data is inexpensive -- so inexpensive that it is cheaper to keep the data than it is to delete it!

So what does all this mean to our genealogist descendants? Well, if viewed with a glass-half-full perspective, it might mean that NSA is in the process of creating and preserving what would in future years be the greatest repository of genealogical information the world has ever seen. Imagine your great great grandchildren being able to access data banks that contain all your telephone calls, emails, travels, credit card transactions, bank records, tax records, internet searches and surfing, library uses, TV and movie views, subscriptions, etc. [That is so long as Bluffdale and its progeny do not catch fire, flood or fall subject to an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or other natural catastrophe.]  

It is exciting to contemplate the breadth and depth of future genealogical research in the U.S. in a world where data is accumulated and preserved in yottabytes! But perhaps it should also give us pause because that means every day in every way our great great grandchildren are now watching us!  
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The seal of the National Security Agency ("NSA") is the seal of an agency of the United States Government and as such it is believed to be in the public domain and not classified in any way. The seal appears on the public website of the NSA at 
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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