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Motherboard

A Grassroots Campaign Wants to Use the Fourth Amendment to Shut Off the NSA’s Water Supply

The Off Now campaign to cut off services to data centres has spread to ten states.

by Tristan James
Jan 28 2014, 6:50pm

While President Obama has proposed some minor changes to mass surveillance, a grassroots campaign, Off Now, has its own major proposition to reduce the NSA’s activities. The apolitical campaign, supported by the Tenth Amendment Centre and the Bill of Rights Defence Committee, essentially plans to starve the NSA out. Through state legislation, they want to ban local governments from providing NSA facilities with basic services like water, electricity, and waste management. 

The NSA’s metaphorical Eye of Sauron is powered by supercomputers that get super-hot creeping on all that data, and to avoid bursting into flames they require massive amounts of water-cooling. Without the water, these computers literally crash and burn. And as Michael Boldin,the founder and executive director of the Tenth Amendment Centre told me, turning off the tap is theoretically fairly easy to do: “In theory, if they don't have water, electricity, wastewater treatment, and all kinds of other daily needs, they're going to have a pretty hard time operating.”

Off Now are leading the charge with a state-level bill, the Fourth Amendment Protection Act. If adopted, it would effectively nullify all NSA facilities within that state by refusing to provide them with crucial day-to-day services. It's now been introduced in ten states (though predictably stalled at various points along the way), and the campaign has also given birth to other related actions—adopting a similar strategy, a campaign to cut off the NSA’s juice in Washington State has received over 18,000 signatures of their 20,000-strong goal. By targeting individual facilities, Off Now believes the NSA’s accumulative power can be significantly reduced.

The campaign draws upon Federalist 46, an essay written by fourth US president James Madison way back in 1788. It’s one of 85 essays written by the founding fathers calling for united ratification of the constitution. It declares that states are rightful to oppose unconstitutional programs or ones that prove “unpopular in particular States.” The current legal doctrine of "anti-commandeering” is linked to this—the federal government has no way of forcing states into participating in federal programs. 

It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened, either. In the 1850s, some Northern states banned the use of various jails that held captured runaway slaves, and other states stripped lawyers of their licence if they defended slavery in rendition cases.

A key focus of the campaign is the NSA’s magnum opus of data collection centres in Bluffdale, Utah. Nicknamed Bumblehive, the $1.7 billion data collection and storage facility is the first purpose-built facility supporting the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative’s questionable methods to keep America safe. The facility’s exact purpose is classified but sources suggest it will be used to store phone records, emails, Google searches and assorted “pocket litter.”

The data centre in Utah. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Swilsonmc

Under Bumblehive’s hood is a 512-qubit quantum computer capable of learning, imitating brain function and reprogramming itself. There’s a trunk with enough storage space for billions of gigabytes and Bumblehive requires 1.7 million gallons of water every day to operate. 

Conveniently for Off Now though, Bumblehive drinks from the Jordan Valley River Conservatory District, which is a political subdivision of the state of Utah. As such, a state law could be passed banning this partnership, and Bumblehive would become useless if it didn’t find water elsewhere quick.

Michael stressed that the plan to make a stand against the NSA goes beyond partisan thinking. “We've come together to lead this important transpartisan coalition because we believe that there are times for people to set aside their political differences and get something done,” he said. “The dangers of unlimited surveillance make this one of those times.”

Being confined to state-by-state verdict, it’s unlikely that the campaign would ever tackle the NSA in its entirety, and the prospect of any services actually being cut still seems rather fantastical. In that way, Off Now may not exactly achieve what it is desires, but it at least bolsters the idea that the NSA can be opposed at a grassroots level.