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NSA 'Sets New Course' With NC State Lab

Poulton Innovation Center
Dave DeWitt

Inside, the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences looks every bit like the tech company it once was. There’s lots of natural light, open spaces for employees to comfortably congregate, and some funky, retro cubicles.

But instead of young techies trying to discover the next big thing, the third floor of the Poulton Innovation Center on NC State’s Centennial Campus is a startup – for the NSA.

“We’re going to do our homework better than we’ve ever done it before,” says Michael Wertheimer, the director of research at the NSA. He says the Lab has a simple, incredibly difficult challenge to meet: “Read the newspaper. Pick any headline on the front page and ask what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s the headline tomorrow? And if I can answer that right, I can change what that headline’s going to be. And hopefully for the good.”

Not much good has happened for the NSA in the past year, since Edward Snowden – a former contractor, born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina – released documents showing the enormous scope of the Agency’s data collection effort.

That set off a firestorm of controversy, and enflamed the debate between privacy and security. It also pushed back the announcement of the then-proposed Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the NSA, an academic institution, and business.

The conversations that led to the creation of the $61 million LAS began during the first days of Randy Woodson’s tenure as chancellor at NC State, four years ago. That’s when Wertheimer pitched him the idea, thanks to an introduction from SAS founder Jim Goodnight.

“It’s a reinforcement of our leadership position in data sciences,” says Woodson. “We’ve been strong in this area for many years and it’s a reflection on our faculty that the NSA would be interested in opening its first collaborative, open research environment on our University’s campus.”

As we now know, the Agency collects massive amounts of data, and needs better ways to find the information buried inside.

NC State was the first university to offer an advanced degree program in data analytics - and data-mining expertise is the key to the NSA’s new Lab. As we now know, the Agency collects massive amounts of data, and needs better ways to find the information buried inside.

Woodson and NSA officials say the NC State facility will have no role in gathering or housing data. But the line between collecting it and helping to analyze it isn’t a clean, easy one, especially when the NSA goes before Congress and pleads its case for larger budgets.

“The NSA has learned it gets more money when it collects more data,” says Matt Leatherman, a policy analyst who has studied the NSA. “And in order to justify collecting more data it has to do something with it. And in the absence of human capacity to do something with it, the NSA turns more and more frequently to high-end computer technology in order to do that.”

The opening of the NSA Lab on Centennial Campus was, in itself, a unique event in the agency’s history. Officials could never recall a “ribbon-cutting” type occasion, inviting guests in to tour a new facility.

“NSA is entering a new phase of transparency,” says Wertheimer. “A lot of that is because of the media attention we’ve received in the last year. It’s a kind of transparency we think is well overdue. Unfortunately it took an event to do the thing. But, having said that, how better to be transparent than to go work in the communities where we need their support?”

One of the NSA’s greatest supporters has been North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He’s also a fan of the new Lab.

“The truth is this is one of the most professional organizations that exists in the world,” says Burr, a Republican. “And this will only be an opportunity to enhance their skills. And the beneficiary of that, the customer of that, is the American people.”

After about an hour, the one hundred or so people lucky enough to tour the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences at NC State filtered out. Soon, security officials will do an extensive, clean sweep of the facility before data analysis experts and equipment can come in to do the Lab’s secret work.

Whether that effort will lead to increased national security or “changed headlines” is something the American people will likely never know.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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