The secret labs where America’s most futuristic weapons are built

On June 25, 2012 by stratagem

Source: The Week

Stuxnet and Flame, two of the key covert computer viruses used in OLYMPIC GAMES, were likely developed at Ft. Meade, Md. At NSA headquarters, computer scientists successfully weaponized C++ and established the battlefield of the future. To test the cyber weapon, perfect replicas of Iran’s centrifuges were built at the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, Israel, and when Stuxnet proved battle effective, it was deployed. The viruses seem to have set back Iran’s nuclear program by several years.

And appearances can be deceiving. Over at Joint Base Langley Eustis in Virginia, the blandly named Technology Applications Program Office is officailly responsible for rapidly procuring and integrating “non-developmental item equipment and systems for Army Special Operations Aviation.” Despite its harmless name and seemingly prosaic mission, this office is actually a highly secretive special mission unit belonging to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. The unit builds some of the most sophisticated tagging and tracking equipment in the world, as well as the sensitive signals intelligence equipment that gets bolted onto military spy planes. More famously, alongside the Integrated Aviation Systems 21 Working Group and under the U.S. Army Aviation Research, Development and Engineering Center, engineers at Joint Base Langley Eustis created the stealth Black Hawks used on the bin Laden raid. (After construction, the helicopters were transported to Area 51, of all places, for testing by the pilots of JSOC’s Aviation Tactics and Evaluation Group.)

I’ve written before of the Special Collection Service — America’s elite signals intelligence operatives — and the mad scientist’s laboratory at their former headquarters in College Park, Md. In his memoir, Mike Frost, a former director of the Communication Security Establishment Canada, described it in some detail: “Wires everywhere, jerry-rigged gizmos everywhere, computers all over the place, some people buzzing around in three-piece suits, and others in jeans and T-shirts. [It was] the ultimate testing and engineering centre for any espionage equipment.” He explained that at the test facility, newly constructed devices are put through the paces in rooms filled with equipment designed to simulate the electronic infrastructures of foreign target cities.

Perhaps the most interesting laboratory in the world is still under construction, and belongs (not surprisingly) to the National Security Agency. Like most secret facilities, it has a banal, utterly forgettable name: The Utah Data Center. Its mission, however, is anything but boring. Located deep in the Utah desert, the $2 billion data collection facility will consume a staggering 65 megawatts to maintain operations. (For comparison: The Hadron Super Collider is designed to figure out the origin of the universe, and only peaks at 120 megawatts.) So what kind of science is going on in the Utah desert? What some consider the holy grail of technology — a massive quantum computer codenamed Vesuvius, which can calculate 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 computations at once. Some speculate that such raw computational power could break PGP, an encryption system with no known vulnerabilities. To understand the implications: Theoretically, PGP could be bombarded with keys and ultimately penetrated. But even under the best, nonexistent, and likely impossible conditions, this would require constant bombardment for 10 trillion years. As has been pointed out, that comes out roughly to “a thousand times the age of the known universe.” Still, if the Utah Data Center really could tear through PGP, it truly would be the “hydrogen bomb of cybersecurity.”

Of course, it should be no surprise that weapons of war and futuristic code-breaking computers would originate at military bases and secret government buildings. But how about this one: Eight miles away from Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., is In-Q-Tel

D.B. Grady is co-author of The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic, and lives in Baton Rouge, La. See more of his work at DBGrady.com.

Read More: The Week

image credit: Acus org

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