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.