North Carolina State University just secured a $60.75 million grant from the National Security Agency (NSA) to build a massive campus lab for the study of data analytics.
The Laboratory for Analytic Sciences (LAS) is expected to create 100 jobs in the area; those actually working in the facility will need government security clearances. The NSA reportedly chose the university because of the latter’s extensive work in data analytics—the campus already boasts an Institute for Advanced Analytics, where students can earn a Master of Science in Analytics, as well as a Center for Innovative Management Studies, which seeks to apply analytics to various industries.
“We have chosen the Research Triangle area for its vibrant academic and industry interest in large data analytics, and NC State for having the nation’s first, and preeminent, advanced degree program in data analytics,” Dr. Michael Wertheimer, Director of Research for the NSA, wrote in a statement. “By immersing intelligence analysts with NC State’s diverse group of scientists, we hope to discover new and powerful ways to meet our foreign signals intelligence and information assurance missions.”
N.C. State University has existing relationships with the Department of Defense, including a variety of joint research projects in areas such as fire protection, explosives detection, and language training.
Of course, the University doesn’t intend to reveal anything about the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences’ work. While a portion of its research will remain unclassified, the bulk of it—including personnel numbers and facility details—will remain firmly under wraps.
The NSA has several uses for advanced data-analytics platforms. In addition to sorting through the flood of electronic data hitting its servers every day, the agency now has a need for systems capable of running networks without the need for human oversight, as it intends to reduce its headcount of system administrators by roughly 90 percent.
“What we’ve done,” NSA director Keith Alexander told a conference in New York City, “is we’ve put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing.” An automated system operated by a minimum of human beings, in other words, will make the NSA’s digital assets more defensible.
And why would the NSA want to harden its data and security systems? Earlier this summer, government whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked some key details of the agency’s programs to The Guardian, kicking off several months’ worth of debate over the pervasiveness of modern signals surveillance. Those Guardian reports offered insights that could force the NSA to radically revamp its programs in order to stay ahead of its competition—sometime that requires much time, money, and research. Hence the funding of new labs.