Can You Make an Algorithm Walk the Plank?


Google shivered some timbers this week when it was revealed that the company is thinking about floating some of its data centers out to sea and anchoring its supercomputers on barges in international waters. The plan would reduce Google’s tax exposure and could drive down energy costs if the barges are able to capture wave power.

The news got us to thinking: Google expends a lot of effort protecting its users’ personal data from hackers and identity pirates; but wouldn’t a floating supercomputer with terabytes of valuable personal data be a rich target for honest-to-goodness high-seas pirates?

To find out, we asked our resident pirate expert, George Mason University economist Peter Leeson. His thoughts are below:

The situation with Google’s latest proposal is an interesting one: to avoid “political pirates” (a.k.a. the taxman), the company may risk making their data centers vulnerable to traditional sea pirates, who might very well sell stolen information to “intellectual property pirates.” It’s a veritable triangle of piracy involving a different kind of theft at each “corner.”

The danger of modern sea piracy is only significant in a handful of places, such as off the east coast of Africa and the Straits of Malacca, where it’s unlikely Google would float its data centers. Still, there remains some risk of sea scoundrels plundering the company’s precious booty no matter where it floats its data centers.

What’s interesting, then, is what Google’s proposal tells us about the kinds of pirates the company sees as posing the greatest threat to its profit. Apparently “political pirates” pose a greater threat to Google’s property than the seafaring kind do. If not, the company wouldn’t be willing to trade an increased chance of plunder by sea bandits for a reduced chance of plunder by government.

For more locations Google might not want to float its “computer navy,” check out the International Maritime Bureau’s live Piracy Attacks Map for 2008.

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  1. Kate says:

    Google Motto #1: Don’t be evil.

    Google Motto #2: Goonies never say die.

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  2. PaulK says:

    Unlike TV shows and movies where anyone can walk up to the most powerful computers and just casually login, big server farms are not designed to make it easy to “plunder” the data. Those pirates would more easily steal oil from an offshore oil platform.

    The bigger problem may be the cost of servicing and supporting such a server system, especially in terms of moving data on and off cheaply enough. But, the cost of land in some places is so high, and the cost of cooling is so expensive, that this could overcome the other costs. Forget energy harvesting, consider just cooling using a pump system from the water below.

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  3. Mattt says:

    Interesting that you should post this just 3 days before International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Yarrr!

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  4. C. Alan Joyce says:

    Huh. Do Sergey and Larry belong to a book discussion group? Who wants to bet the group’s latest pick was Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”?

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  5. Boffo says:

    As long as Google encrypts the data (and doesn’t give anyone on the barge the keys), there’s no danger of data being stolen. Any danger of data being held hostage could be eliminated by multiple redundant back-ups in physically distributed locations.

    Pirates might still be interested in stealing the hardware. But how much of a black market is there for high end servers? And it seems like it would be easy enough to Google to arm the platforms well enough that it would be too risky a target for pirates.

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  6. Nick Johnson says:

    Boffo (5) makes a good point about encryption, though saying that there’s “no danger” is a bit of an overstatement: In order to actually work with the data, the machines would have to hold the keys in memory. Stealing the servers without powering them down, then extracting the keys would be significant technical challenges, though.

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  7. Shiloh says:

    I agree with Boffo. As long as the data is encrypted and the keys aren’t handed out to anybody the data will be perfectly safe. Besides, the idea of using waves to power the servers is a great idea.

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  8. Devon says:

    I can’t help but think back to the Hurricane Ike headlines about Oil rigs being compromised / threatened and the impact that had on the oil market. Recognizing of course that they probably wouldn’t select the Gulf to anchor their equipment – wouldn’t any water based facility be susceptible to similar threats and subsequent market influences?

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