A feeling for data volume

Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin
Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin

Today’s “Süddeutsche Zeitungpublished an interactive infographic produced by OpenDataCity. It was created in response to a statement by the German president, Joachim Gauck, who rejected comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, asserting that the NSA is certainly not compiling thick binders in which it files away our conversations, like the Stasi did.

Comparing the digitized Stasi archives with the estimated capacity of the NSA (e.g. in its new yottabyte-capacity, 65-MW-burning data center in Bluffdale, Utah), OpenDataCity came up with the following comparison: if you stored the NSA’s data in the same density as the Stasi had available (in paper files), it would not fit into Berlin. Or Europe, for that matter.

Image #1: area of the Stasi archives. It’s the square on the left, superimposed over a map of central Berlin (though they didn’t put it over the actual “Stasi Zentrale”)

The size of the Stasi archives, based on paper files
Left square: the size of the Stasi archives, based on storage of paper files

Image #2: the Stasi archives, expanded to house the NSA’s estimated data volume in paper form – superimposed over Europe and parts of Northern Africa

Area required to store the NSA's data volume, if stored in paper files like the Stasi
Right square: the area required to store the NSA’s data, if stored as paper files like the Stasi

The vast amount of data that can be processed and stored nowadays is not clear to most people, especially those who haven’t grown up with computers. MB, GB, TB are abstract concepts, so I think it helps to visualize the data volume in this way.

Systemic Paranoia

I think the concepts and vocabulary of “Homeland Security” are emotionally loaded, and it’s likely this is by design of the stakeholders. The core concept has led to the creation of staffed and funded organizations which can’t possibly be in a good position to justify their levels of staffing and funding. I’ll bet this situation leads to the routine over-deployment of resources (usually: armed and armoured civil servants) at the slightest hint of a marginally justifiable cause.

I recently had an odd experience in a commercial plane, which soon after landing was boarded by a CDC official, inexplicably accompanied by a swarm of armed goons, to investigate a cranky child.

Here’s a similar case, where the sighting of a glider near a nuclear power plant led to the deployment of apparently over-excited local law enforcement officials acting on behalf of FBI and DHS. I’d ask “what are these people thinking”, but they probably just aren’t. They just follow orders, or their manual, and are more than likely delighted about the expanded authority which has been bestowed upon them out of the blue.

Go ahead and follow the link. The AOPA’s using the case to sell their legal assistance, but nonetheless it’s an interesting case. It’s disturbing to see the police, and worse: the DHS trying to exert power where they have no jurisdiction (here: aviation regulations). Threatening to shoot down an unpowered aircraft which is too light to be a threat to a nuclear power plant (evident just by looking at it)? It’s disgusting.

When air travelers feel uncomfortable…

…it’s not always due to the leg room or the obese passenger in the aisle seat (see “Arijit Vs. Delta”).

I have the greatest disdain for the security theatre at airports. Sadly, it’s taken to extremes at US airports. I’ve never understood why the majority of passengers not only endure the humiliation of being herded around like kindergarten children, but many become quite defensive when someone (not necessarily me) has a bit of harmless fun with checkpoint procedures or etiquette.