It's hot and noisy inside Nebraska's supercomputer.
Some 10,000 computer processors are whirring and blinking away in a thousand “pizza boxes,” as the slim, stacked machines at the University of Nebraska at Omaha are called.
This room-sized supercomputer at UNO is furiously building information haystacks and furiously searching those haystacks for the rare needle in a process called data mining.
Wait a minute.
That sounds suspiciously like the top-secret work done by another three-lettered entity that's now under intense public scrutiny. The National Security Agency has been collecting telephone and Internet data, mining phone call logs, Google searches and other Web activity. It's a needle-in-the-haystack search for, as the NSA says, potential terrorist threats. The government is mining the data for people, places and patterns.
“Do you work for the National Security Agency?” I ask David Swanson, the UNO supercomputer caretaker.
“I do not,” Swanson says.
“I have no affiliation,” answers the UNO scientist with a background in computational chemistry. That field involves looking at the chemical reactions you get if you “smash something or shine a light on it.”
Swanson no longer smashes things. He now runs the Holland Computing Center largely based at UNO's Peter Kiewit Institute, where the supercomputer has been housed since 2008.
Let's assume that Swanson is not a federal agent and that the Holland Computing Center is not a shell for a secret agency doing surveillance work.
So then what does the supercomputer do?
In short, Swanson explains, the point is to run science experiments based on data-intense analysis of complicated equations.
Like showing what would happen to the climate if you plowed up Nebraska's corn and planted switchgrass instead. Like analyzing a whole body of written texts — say, the works of Shakespeare — to find certain speech patterns.
Like making a tracking detector to identify traces left by the so-called “God particle.”
Last year, a team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln physicists used the supercomputer, which has a presence on UNL's campus, too, to help analyze data that led to the observation in March in Switzerland of that hypothesized elementary particle, formally called the Higgs boson. Physicists had spent 40 years searching for it.
When it was installed at UNO five years ago, this supercomputer — called Firefly — was the 43rd-fastest of 500 supercomputers in the world. Firefly has since been updated with an even bigger, more powerful unit called Tusker.
Between Firefly and Tusker, users log some 160 million hours of use a year — the bulk of those hours consumed by particle physicists, nanoscientists, climatologists and biologists.
So many scientists use Firefly and Tusker that they reserve computing time the way diners reserve tables at a restaurant. The projects are collaborative, the codes are shared and a number of international students log on.
While their experiments vary, all are essentially engaged in the same needle-in-a-haystack search.
“They are looking for one event out of several billion,” Swanson says.
Their search is vastly aided by a machine that can do in 10 hours or so what the average laptop would need six months to compute.
Nebraska's supercomputer is public, with many users, including international students who can log on from their home countries. It's far from the secretive operation run by the NSA.
“I don't know what the NSA has,” says Swanson, “and I don't want to.”
Recent polls show that Americans are either somewhat OK with revelations of the NSA programs or somewhat not OK with it. Views are shaded by one's political affiliation, as they have been in the past on NSA surveillance.
Swanson is conflicted and somewhat ambivalent about the surveillance revelations.
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He rattles off technology's benefits: the convenience, the speed, the efficiency, the ability of Firefly-Tusker and its ilk to “advance scientific knowledge in ways that weren't imaginable a decade ago.”
On the flip side is the potential for misuse of the vast amount of information. We've long left paper trails about our lives. But now our electronic fingerprints are everywhere, and instantly available.
Swanson is troubled by how easy technology has made it to detail our location almost real-time.
With advances come the need for responsibility, he said — not only by those tracking our actions but also by us.
I talked to two cybersecurity experts, who pointed out that we all give up plenty of privacy, for things like convenience (Google Maps), discounts (Baker's), affirmation (Facebook) and security (Find My iPhone app).
Both reminded me that any steps that average citizens take in encrypting our email or otherwise “hiding” our Internet use would be either impossible or impractical. But we can limit what we share online.
Robin Gandhi, assistant professor of information assurance at UNO, said he fears the scope of the government programs.
Ron Woerner, director of cybersecurity studies at Bellevue University, is more concerned about how businesses use the data.
A typical computer user's Google searches and spending habits are tracked and used for consumer protection and for heavy marketing.
It appears that haystacks of data are everywhere. And more groups than the NSA are digging into them for needles.
But humans can still exert an important role here.
We can talk about this. We can ask questions.
And if we don't want a supercomputer to find out what we're saying, we can discuss this in person. Sitting on a park bench like they do in spy movies.
I'm sure there's always a park bench around.
In fact, there are some right outside Nebraska's supercomputer.
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