Skip to main content

The NSA showed off its 'information dominance' from the bridge of the Starship 'Enterprise'

The NSA showed off its 'information dominance' from the bridge of the Starship 'Enterprise'

Share this story

According to the sources contacted by Foreign Policy for a recent profile, NSA head Keith Alexander is a "cowboy," a well-intentioned extremist, a blithely naive fan of big data. He is also, it appears, a huge fan of Star Trek. Foreign Policy describes Alexander's data-processing "Information Dominance Center" in Fort Belvoir, Virginia as the site of a high-tech homage to the Starship Enterprise. Alexander reportedly had his operations center redesigned to mimic the Enterprise bridge, "complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a 'whoosh' sound when they slid open and closed."

While only a brief look at the Information Dominance Center was offered in Foreign Policy's piece, Glenn Greenwald appears to have found a larger photo set directly from the designers. "The Center's primary function is to enable 24-hour worldwide visualization, planning, and execution of coordinated information operations for the US Army and other federal agencies," says a paper by DBI Architects. "The futuristic, yet distinctly military, setting is further reinforced by the Commander's console, which gives the illusion that one has boarded a star ship [sic]." More pictures can be seen here.

"Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard."

The data visualized and shown off at the Information Dominance Center seems to have been of varying usefulness. At one point, a former official recalls Alexander giving a briefing on how closely terrorists were connected via communications networks. "Later, we had a chance to review the information," he says. "It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops." In other cases, he apparently deployed tools so aggressively that it became hard to keep them secret. A search system called the "automatic ingestion manager" crawled and catalogued websites heavily enough that the Defense Intelligence Agency site automatically kicked it out as a potential cyberattack.

But as we've seen over the past month, the NSA's authority has grown dramatically over Alexander's eight-year tenure. The NSA's technical safeguards for privacy protection are "probably better than any other agency," says one official. "But [Alexander] doesn't get that this power can still be abused. ... In his mind it's 'You should trust me, and in exchange, I give you protection.'" The officials and lawmakers who were apparently treated to presentations at the center, however, seemed duly impressed. "Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard," says an officer who helped coordinate the visits.