How Green Data Spilled A Snooper’s Secret

Peter Judge

Boasting about your green tech is a bore, but in France’s case, it turned out to be revealing, says Peter Judge

Much as we complain about greenwash, it seems green IT played an interesting role in the recent revelations around the US government’s PRISM and other nations’ surveillance. It may be that we owe some of our information about government snooping to one organisation’s desire for good publicity around its environmental record.

Also, if government surveillance does spawn a protest movement, it seems likely the protests could piggy-back on attitudes to data centres which have been fostered by the green movement: data centres are already criticised for using dirty energy, now it looks like they’ll be tarnished further by holding sneaky data.

CRC Energy Efficiency SchemeDirty sneaky data centres

Public awareness of data centres is higher than ever – thanks in part to Greenpeace’s criticisms of Facebook, Amazon and the rest. While Apple and Google get praise for increasing their use of renewables, Greenpeace increases the pressure on the rest.

At the same time, privacy campaigners have hit hard against the big web companies.

The result? Data centres have become to some a symbol of what is wrong with industry. When civil rights groups wanted to protest against PRISM, 150 of them took their cause to the NSA’s data centre in Bluffdale Utah.

Tying ribbons to the perimeter fence, it’s clear that these protesters saw the data centre as a focal point for their action, just as missile bases and power stations have been for previous movements.

Is this a bad thing for the industry? Well, the data centre in itself is not the villain here, and I’m sure most of the protesters are aware of this.

I suspect some would prefer to return to a world where mass surveillance was not made possible by modern communications and data storage. They might prefer the data centre not to exist.

Others are perfectly happy to get their message out through Facebook and other social media, using their data centres and networks. Awareness of what data centres do is clearly higher than ever.

A revealing green boast

Strangely, green tech seems to have had a role in exposing the extent of surveillance by France’s DGSE government intelligence agency.

The story was the same as in the US and the UK – but apparently came from hints and information gathered by French newspaper, Le Monde, instead of another leak from Edward Snowden.

The French secret service appears to be gathering masses of data at a centre in Boulevard Mortier in Paris. The French regulator has said that if this is the case, it is breaking the same sorts of laws that PRISM seems to be breaking.

But how did we hear about France’s petit PRISM?

Among the few sources where the database has been mentioned in public, is one where the technology director of DGSE, Bernard Barbier, speaks with some pride about the centre – for one particular reason.

It uses a lot of energy, and its customised FPGA-based systems generate a lot of heat.

DGSE, like a good green IT citizen, is using that heat to warm all its office buildings. And since green tech is good publicity, it told the world about it – without thinking that the existence of this computer power might give people a strong hint that the DGSE is storing and processing a lot of data from French citizens and their contacts.

A version of this article appeared on Green Data Center News.

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