Can a State Withhold Water From the NSA? California Is About to Find Out

Problem is, the NSA has no data centers there.

Jun 27 2014, 7:21pm
The NSA's Utah Data Center. Image: EFF

The plan to cut off the National Security Administration's water supply is trickling ever closer to becoming a reality in California, where it was just passed out of the state assembly's Public Safety Committee. It's a nice little jab at the goverment snoops, but can the bill actually do anything?

We first saw the OffNow campaign's legislation back in February, when its leader, Michael Boldin, convinced eight Maryland Republicans to sponsor a similar measure. The bill proposed cutting water and electric support to any federal government agency that conducts unwarranted surveillance. It didn't go anywhere in Maryland, where the NSA is headquarted, but it did pass California's Senate, and now it seems like it'll face a vote in the full assembly.

At the moment, California doesn't have any NSA data collection centers, so it seems to be a preemptive or symbolic measure at best.

Shane Trejo, an OffNow spokesperson, said as much in a press release earlier this year: "It’s not unlikely that [the NSA is] planning to build new data centers and ‘threat operations centers’ in other locations," he said. "California’s high-tech industry makes it a likely candidate.  We can’t wait until the NSA opens up shop. This act yanks away the welcome mat and tells the NSA, ‘We don’t want you in California unless you follow the Constitution.’”

So, yeah—mostly a symbolic gesture. But a few provisions in the bill would seem to have some teeth: Most notably, it would make it illegal for data obtained illegally by the NSA without a warrant to be used in state or local criminal investigations. Additionally, its backers say that passage would require six California public universities to end their NSA "Center of Academic Excellence" programs, which feeds the NSA with new talent. 

State Sen. Ted Leiu, who introduced the bill, told Government and Technology that he believes there aren't any rules that suggest a state can't cut off services to the federal government.

"There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that says states have to cooperate with federal agencies absent a specific congressional law," he said. "There's nothing out there that says we in California have to cooperate with immigration officials at the federal level, or in this case, with the NSA."

But is that true? The Federal Reserved Water Rights act allows the federal government unqualified access to resources for Native American reservations, National Parks, and military bases. It's unclear whether an NSA office—as an office of the Department of Defense—would qualify as a military base.

In any case, it's appearing increasingly likely that we'll see what happens when a state votes to withhold resources directly from the federal government. The measure flew through California's senate and appears to have a lot of support in its assembly. It still seems like a stunt, but it might be one that the two sides will have to litigate in court.