The publicly stated goal of the center is to protect the nation from cyber attack. But privacy advocates fear that the data collection power could extend far beyond spying on the nation's enemies.
They point to the fact that at the groundbreaking of the center in January 2011, nobody from the Department of Homeland Security (the agency whose mission is to guard civilian networks from cyber attacks) spoke. Instead, it was CIA veteran Glenn A. Gaffney. They point to reports that the NSA is increasingly relying on private firms to mine data, because they don't need a search warrant. Only government searches and seizures are limited by the Constitution.
Bamford reported that William Binney, 68, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, told him that once data is collected and stored, everything a person does, including "financial transactions or travel or anything" can be charted on a graph. Bamford said Binney told him, while holding his thumb and forefinger close together, "We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."
Are such worries overheated paranoia? Perhaps. Kevin McAleavey, cofounder and chief architect of the KNOS project, says the kind of snooping NSA will be doing of Internet service providers won't be much different from what it has done for decades in telephone wiretapping.
And he says people will find ways to work around the NSA, even with its expanded powers.
"In 2001, while the feds were looking for traffic from al Qaeda participants, I found a little trick they were engaged in," he says.
"They'd log into Hotmail, write a draft email and then others would log in with the same account and read and modify the draft email and just save it in place. At no time was the draft ever emailed! That's how they communicated, while NSA was waiting for the email to get sent."
Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital, says the NSA is just doing, "exactly what Amazon and Google are doing. We have to have Big Data capabilities just to keep track of people in other parts of the world. And I hope they're doing that very well in Iran."
McGraw says with the diminished effectiveness of firewalls, it is, "very hard, and will be harder to distinguish American traffic from other traffic that we really should be spying on. But that's just the way the world works."
But he says privacy advocates are probably more worried than they need to be. "The NSA doesn't care about them," he says.
Still, for the average, unsophisticated user, the prospects can be chilling. Law professor and privacy adviser Rebecca Herold says it is not just the president who is involved.