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Image Courtesy of the National Security Agency.
Situated near Washington DC, the National Security Agency (NSA) is the cryptologic organization of the United States Government. Formed in 1952 under presidential directive, it is charged with analyzing foreign transmissions and gaining intelligence and protecting US information systems.
The NSA is the biggest employer of mathematicians in the United States. It also has its own chip fabrication plant, some of the most powerful computers that exist, and a big budget. All of these assets are used to achieve its two main objectives: cracking enemy codes, and protecting domestic secrets. Although the NSA has some military officers in its employee base, not everyone who works there is military.
An interesting fact is that the NSA's yearly electric bill is 21 million US dollars. NSA consumes more power than all but one other entity in the state of Maryland. In addition, the NSA has its own power plant on-site, presumably in case of enemy attack.
Just how powerful is the code cracking ability of the NSA? We don't know. They do; but they won't tell us. Some estimates suggest that their abilities allow them to brute-force a 56-bit key. That kind of key has 72,057,594,037,927,936 possible combinations of "passwords." To break it, the NSA would have to try each possible one until they found the right one. To accomplish that kind of computing in one-week would require them to do 119,142,847,285 tries per second. The average Pentium 500 can do about 500,000 to 600,000 tries per second. (If you're reading this from the NSA and are laughing at how off this estimate is, feel free to give us some pointers on how to improve our statistics.)
However, the NSA has restrictions on what it can do. Law prohibits it from intercepting domestic (United States) traffic. If a NSA employee is listening in on a phone conversation and a citizen of the United States comes on the line, the NSA person must immediately turn off all monitoring equipment, destroy records that the conversation was logged, and report the incident. Failure to do so results in the employee going to jail. However, under unusual circumstances, high-level officials may authorize the use of NSA resources for domestic monitoring to assist the FBI or a related agency in an official investigation.
Here are a couple pictures of NSA supercomputers. They are older ones, but they are still very impressive. The one on the top is a CRAY Supercomputer from about ten years ago. On the bottom is a 30 terrabyte storage device using magnetic tapes. These are now being replaced with optical storage devices. When one is in the intelligence community, it is prudent to save everything that comes into your possession. The NSA does just that. Both images are courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum.
Or, if you want, visit the NSA's web site.