Midtown Raleigh News

NSA establishes $60 million data analytics lab at N.C. State

Randy Woodson
Randy Woodson tlong@newsobserver.com

As the field of “big data” continues to grow in importance, N.C. State University has landed a big coup – a major lab for the study of data analysis, funded by the National Security Agency.

A $60.75 million grant from the NSA is the largest research grant in NCSU’s history – three times bigger than any previous award.

The Laboratory for Analytic Sciences will be launched in a Centennial Campus building that will be renovated with money from the federal agency, but details about the facility are top secret. Those who work in the lab will be required to have security clearance from the U.S. government.

NCSU officials say the endeavor is expected to bring 100 new jobs to the Triangle during the next several years. The university, already a leader in data science, won the NSA contract through a competitive process.

NCSU university already has strengths in computer science, applied mathematics and statistics and a collaborative project with the NSA on cybersecurity. The university also is in the process of hiring four faculty members for its new data-driven science cluster, adding to its expertise.

“It is a big deal,” said NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson. “It’s a natural fit for us because as an institution we’ve been about data analysis and big data for a long time. I think the National Security Agency realized that when they selected us as a university partner.”

It’s unclear exactly what kind of work will be done at the new lab, but Woodson said NCSU won’t be involved in the federal agency’s mass surveillance programs that have been the subject of controversy in the past few months.

“As a university, we’re not going to be involved in the operational intelligence work of the National Security Agency,” Woodson said. “Our partnership with them is really about the science of big data and data analysis. I don’t think there’s anything more difficult right now for both government and the private sector than making sense out of the deluge of data that we’re all swimming in every day.”

Based on leaks from the now infamous Edward Snowden, news organizations revealed this year that the NSA collects internet traffic and phone records in the United States through secret court orders to phone and Internet companies. The government has said the information is “metadata” and that it does not routinely monitor the contents of phone calls.

Postponed announcement

The NSA has been the target of heavy criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union and others who say the agency’s actions amount to unconstitutional spying on American citizens.

Internal emails at NCSU show that the announcement of the new lab had originally been scheduled for early June, but was postponed when news of the surveillance programs broke.

“A very important announcement about our new NSA-funded Laboratory for Analytic Sciences was suppose to be made public this morning, but with that bit out of The Guardian (newspaper) on NSA collecting phone records of Verizon customers – everyone thought it best to not make the announcement just yet,” wrote Randy Avent, NCSU’s associate vice chancellor for research, in a June 6 email to NCSU administrators. “BTW – our Lab is just that – a research program studying the fundamental science behind analytics. It is not a storage facility for classified data and does not work with any data like that mentioned in the article.”

Avent wrote to the NCSU officials of the need to quickly solidify the research plan for the new lab before deadlines for fiscal year funding. Because of contract delays, he wrote, “they are now in a jam and have to spend the funds almost immediately or they will be swept up. For that reason, we’re going through a two-week marathon to plan the research agenda for next year and spend the money.”

Avent could not be reached for comment Thursday. Woodson said he wasn’t aware of the emails, but said it was not unusual with federal grants to have to expend money by a certain date.

In-demand graduates

The chancellor said big data is important for national security but also many other fields. Those with expertise in data analysis are in high demand, he said. Graduates of NCSU’s master’s in data analytics have job placement rates of 90 percent and command starting salaries of over $100,000.

In the announcement from the NSA, the agency’s director of research, Michael Wertheimer, said NCSU is the ideal location for the new lab.

“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,” Wertheimer’s statement said. “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 – giving us an edge to better protect the nation.”

NCSU already has a long history with “big data.” Business software giant SAS, which is based in Cary, traces its roots to N.C. State.

Billionaire co-founders Jim Goodnight, the company’s CEO, and John Sall met when they were graduate students at NCSU and started the business in 1976. The privately held company generated $2.87 billion in revenue last year and has 13,708 employees worldwide, including 5,159 in Cary.

SAS boasts that its software simplifies and speeds up management of “big data,” or massive amounts of data measured in terabytes. One terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes – or about a thousand billion bytes.

Staff writers David Ranii and Joseph Neff contributed to this story.