Santa's Covert Operations Uncovered

The December issue of Wired Magazine details the high-tech operation behind Santa's yearly deliveries. According to Wired, Santa oversees a massive network of container ships, naughty/nice surveillance, and special-ops helpers trained for covert entry into homes. Adam Rogers, a Wired senior editor, speaks with NPR's Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But, no, Santa doesn't work the way he used to.

It's a new age and Santa has many more Americans to get presents to than he ever did before. So Mr. Claus and the staff are using high-tech methods and sophisticated systems analyses to make sure you get your little tin horns and little toy drums - if you're good, that is. The current issue of Wired details just how Santa's mega-operation operates these days.

Adam Rogers is a senior editor with the magazine, and he's in the studio of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome, Adam.

Mr. ADAM ROGERS (Senior Editor, Wired): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: All right. So lets start from the beginning. Why is Santa based at the North Pole?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, this is brilliant. So it used to be for isolation, right? Because nobody ever gets to the North Pole. And you want to run a secret operation. You want to do it where nobody ever goes. But now, of course, as more and more people begin to go to the North Pole, there's a whole other reason, which is in order to run the naughty/nice algorithm - the computer algorithm that processes whether kids are naughty or nice, you need huge vast server farms like - as we say in the story - makes Google look like Pong, right?

Now, if you know anything about the server farms, you know, the biggest problem with those is that the computer chips in them generate a lot of heat. And it takes a lot of power to cool these things off. But in the North Pole, you just roll down the window.

HANSEN: Okay. Go back to the naughty/nice algorithm. Have you worked that out?

Mr. ROGERS: If you follow the news all about like the NSA, you know, and…

HANSEN: National security.

Mr. ROGERS: National (Unintelligible) organization, National Security Agency or no such agency, right, as they used to call it. These folks who run kind of surveillance on sort of whoever they want. Now, thanks to USA Patriot Act and other stuff.

But these guys all have satellites and taps on electronic communications. And so we assume that the operation Santa that this kind of conspiratory organization either has people inside NSA and NRO and all these sort of other alphabet soup of surveillance agencies. Or they have informants who work from where they're hacked in somehow. So the algorithm we think kind of works on key words like, you know, hit or punch or detention or cheating. You know, kind of stuff that kids do wrong. They're aided by the fact that, these days, all of the school files, you know, this will be in your permanent record. So those you saw beyond paper. But now, those records are actually electronic and they're made to be transferable between school districts. So if you have access to those, then you know if a kid has been naughty or nice.

HANSEN: Okay. The toys, you're saying the elves don't make them?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, I'm saying that there's too many kids for elves to make them. I'm saying that, you know, they're trying to deliver - we suspect - something like 34 million gifts, which is like 56 million U.S. kids under 13 and like 70 percent of them, let's say, celebrate Christmas and 80 percent of those are rated nice. You got 34 million kids. So we think they outsource to China.

HANSEN: Oh, still?

Mr. ROGERS: Sure. Well, that's where the manufacturing facilities are. And the beauty of that is that you don't have to tell the factories that they're working for Santa. You just contract to them and you say, look, you know, we need 34 million toys. You have a lot of different factories. No factories know what the other factories are doing. Then the only trick is actually getting the stuff from like Xinxiang and Shanghai to ports and getting them into containerized cargo and on to ships, and getting those across the Pacific.

HANSEN: Okay. Let's talk about transportation. I mean, the sleigh, a tiny reindeer.

Mr. ROGERS: Yes.

HANSEN: Is that the transportation system that Santa uses to get all the presents to the kids in one night?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, I think we guessed, let's say, where that myth might have come from because we're pretty sure that they used roughly eight cargo ships - like big, massive supercargo carriers with containerized cargo. But we think the names of those ships might be things like Dasher and Dancer and Prancer, you know, Rudolph, with a big red search light in the front of the ship.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. ROGERS: So they're using containerized cargo. They come in through Tacoma, perhaps, and through L.A., through San Pedro, because those are the big deep-water ports. Once it's there, you just get it off the ship, put it on cranes, it goes on trains, it goes to warehouses in Sparks, Nevada, which is where we figure the most room is and kind of the fewest questions are asked. And then there, it gets moved out across the country to distribution centers - kind of same way Amazon works. So you move all the things to these warehouses. You move the toys to the warehouses and then they wait there for C Day.

HANSEN: Okay, C Day. Let's talk about C Day. Is it still, you know, one guy - jolly, white beard, red suit - coming down the chimney?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, there may well be still one guy in a red suit with a nice trimmed kind of white Van Dyker goatee sitting in front of the massive, like NORAD, control room somewhere in the North Pole - like an office with all the screens in front of him - watching the operation unfold. But we're thinking that, probably, you need about 2.7 million people spread out around the country, sort of Navy SEAL-like incursion guys. We suspect they might be referred to by the acronym Heavy Equipment Light Package Emergent Response, which is HELPER. So these are Santa's little helpers.

And they are special ops units - so there's three of them - trained for home ingress and egress. They get these naughty/nice list downloaded to PDAs about 11 p.m., C-Day eve and 2300 hours. And they go out with these mobile units. The mobile units use the same kind of jamming technology that American troops use in Iraq to try to quell the radio signals that light up IEDs. Only in this case, it's to turn off cell phones and telephone lines to make sure that nobody can call in or out - like you don't want somebody calling the cops because they hear noise.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. ROGERS: Yeah. Because otherwise, and the cops comes in. That blows the whole operation. It's got to be totally covert.

HANSEN: Yeah. It's going to be covert. So how - I mean, how come they never get caught in the act?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, a few different ways. First of all, special ops teams know how to get into a house and get out. And in fact, one of the guys that we talked to said, you know, we can do it in under five minutes but we're not quiet. So they do it in a little bit longer than five minutes so they're very quiet. And once they're inside, they kind of scan the gifts under the tree with a terrorist way of handheld imager, which lets you see what's inside it because they don't want to double up the gift, right? You don't want to accidentally give the same thing from Santa like mom or dad gave. So they give a different gift. They have a big pack full of, you know, a variety of kinds of gifts that's often crosschecked with what the, you know, dear Santa, here's what I want for Christmas list are. But that gets to be a complicated computational problem often. It's just something cool.

Now, if they get spotted, right, which is entirely possible, our suspicion is that they have some kind of either hypnologic gas or something that they can put kids or parents to sleep with. And my personal guess is that one of the side effects of this is that after it knocks you out, it makes you dream of sugar plums.

HANSEN: Oh, dancing in their heads.

Mr. ROGERS: That's what I'm thinking. Otherwise, why would you think about sugar - I mean, I've never seen a sugar plum. Where else would that come from?

HANSEN: But were not talking cloaking devices or anything like that.

Mr. ROGERS: No, no, no. This is all stuff that works.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. ROGERS: All these things exist. Cloaking device - I mean, that's science fiction. Come on, Liane.

HANSEN: Oh, right. Of course. Well, all right, how much does this cost, you know, for Santa - the Santa operation to get this all done on C Day.

Mr. ROGERS: Yeah. It's expensive. I mean, let's be honest. This is a big deal. It's a huge operation. So our calculation - and also, these aren't volunteers. Like the helpers get paid, you know, they're paying the cargo ships, the shippers, the factories. Everybody gets paid for this. So we think it's - we think it's about $27 billion a year.

HANSEN: That's a lot. The money, how does Santa get all that money?

Mr. ROGERS: So it is a lot, right?

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. ROGERS: But we're figuring that these guys get points off the gross of every Christmas movie and TV show that gets made. And in fact, that they help develop them. And - because if you're in Hollywood, right, Christmas is one of your seasonal things. You always - every studio wants to crank out a couple of Christmas things, right? Because they're sort of reliable moneymakers. So we figured they're in development deals with this organization. So in the last 25 years, Christmas-themed movies have made something like $1.7 billion. You get points off the gross of those movies. And then, all it takes is some really aggressive hedge funds offshore and you just start the money coming in.

HANSEN: Okay, Adam, aren't you a little concerned that this analysis is going to take, you know, some of the romance, some of the magic? I mean, are there things that were probably better off not knowing?

Mr. ROGERS: Well, let me say a couple things about that. First of all, this is totally hypothetical. I mean, I'm sure that, you know, Santa works in much more complicated ways than this. I mean, this is just our best guess. But also, I would say, isn't this cool, though? I mean, to me, this is awesome. This is better to me than the idea that like there's a big fat guy who can somehow trans-dimensionally be in every chimney - even if you don't have a chimney - on the planet. Like that, just I don't buy. But this, like this, I kind of get. This, I can imagine it. That somewhere out there, there are almost 3 million people just waiting to be activated in the next few days to go out and, you know, bring the joy and bring the love - not to my house because I'm Jewish and we don't celebrate Christmas, but some houses.

HANSEN: Adam Rogers is a senior editor with Wired. The current issue explains how Santa gets all those presents delivered every Christmas Day. Adam joined us from the studio of member station KQED in San Francisco.

And Adam, happy C-Day.

Mr. ROGERS: Happy holidays, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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