Pete Ashdown and Grant Sperry, who run XMission, a small internet service provider, were in Utah’s National Guard’s Camp Williams. It is located across the street from the National Security Agency’s infamous Utah Data Center, which houses the massive server farms that power the agency’s sweeping digital surveillance operation; they had a rare invitation from the agency to tour the facility with a group of heads of other internet companies, professors, and politicians, and they were looking for parking. They could clearly see the 1 million-square-foot complex — in fact, anyone driving in the area, even on the main highway leading up to Salt Lake City, could spot the drab gray buildings. But here was a solider with an AR-15 telling them the center didn’t exist.
That was back in November 2012, long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the PRISM spy program, but after a disquieting write-up in Wired in May of last year — back when it was still plausible, at least, that the data center was used just for counterterrorism purposes, not to collect untold quantities of data on Americans’ digital activities.
Still, the NSA wanted people to stay quiet. Pre-scandal or post-scandal, it’s still the NSA.
“This will be a one-time opportunity and will likely be the only time we will be able to get uncleared [sic] people on a tour of the data center,” read the emailed invitation from David Winberg, the director of the NSA’s Utah division.
Ashdown and Sperry had been invited inside as members of a consortium of data center leaders in Utah, which the NSA and the University of Utah Engineering School had set up. The main aim, it was made clear, was to find engineers to run the mysterious center — the center the soldier maintained did not exist.
The tour guide refused to answer most of the group’s questions, including how much data was coming in. Information offered was almost comically general. He showed off the massive generators and electrical distribution system, the water-piping infrastructure. He showed them that the conduit where the fiber enters the facility is located in an area under the building, so far down that oxygen has to be pumped in for the service workers. And he explained that the facility is essentially divided into two redundant halves, each part running independently from the other. He then shared an outline, a collection of secondary facts.
At that point, the NSA was already starting to test out the computer systems. But those were kept behind closed doors. “They made special effort not to take us into rooms that had functioning systems,” says Ashdown.
When I asked various people who have toured the building with the consortium what their impression was, the responses were vague and similar: “huge,” “impressive.”
“I was interested in the mythology of the NSA, and was asking questions, like, can they crack the hardest encryption and crash hard drives?” says Ashdown, Utah’s most vocal internet privacy activist. “I wish I had not been so starstruck. I would have asked the question, ‘How do you rectify what you are doing with the Constitution?’”
It was a story I heard a lot in and around Bluffdale: When it started, we had no idea. Now it’s too late to change things.
“Everything, of course, changed as more information about the NSA spying program was released,” Ashdown says. “That kind of put the tour in a different light for me. I wasn’t really thinking about [NSA whistle-blower Russ Tice’s 2006 wiretapping revelations]. I remember hearing about that, but I didn’t put two and two together, realizing that they are storing all the information here.”
When Tice told me that the Utah Data Center was up and running, according to his sources — meaning that the NSA has the power for full content collection beyond metadata — I headed down to Utah to see it myself. I got close. I drove up the unmarked road toward the facility, past the unmanned gates, but got apprehended by two NSA police officers in dark sunglasses, driving white SUVs. They threatened me with federal charges for trespassing on restricted military property, but ultimately let me go.
“I would not have suggested that, if you told me you were going to do it,” Tice told me after he heard what I had done. “Bottom line, these are not people to be trifled with. They are dangerous people.” He pointed out that things could have gone much, much worse.
An official tour was out of the question. The local NSA media spokesperson suggested I try to take photos from the periphery. She even suggested I go to the National Guard parking lot. But, more than the anonymous monoliths of the facility, the community surrounding the center was what grabbed my attention.
It was a microcosm of America’s relationship to the NSA scandal at large. There’s the data center, lurking in the background — visible but invisible, real and unreal — doing something that, for reasons that deserve far more explanation than they get, has been made literally unspeakable.
Everywhere I asked — at the multiple Walmarts, the local chain coffee shops and restaurants, the bar down the road that was draped in military banners — people said they knew about the center, but mostly from what they read in the news. Some had friends who had worked contract construction gigs over there — and yes, I can ask them, but no, they probably won’t talk to you, I was told over and over. Their friends hadn’t even told them much.
Even the politicians, professors, and people running private internet company who had direct interactions with the NSA only had one-way conversations. No one would tell them what was going on over there. “They were very directional: This is what we need, and there was no answering the question of why,” says University of Utah professor Matt Might, who helped coordinate meetings with the NSA and the faculty to establish a data center certification program.
When the federal government solicited construction bids in January 2010, they shared some of the center’s technical specs. But even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was supervising the construction for the NSA, wasn’t allowed to know what would be going on there. During the meetings with the consortium, which are apparently only for the NSA’s benefit, the agency representatives hold their cards close. “They are trained to not reveal any information and are very good at that,” says Sperry, who attends the meetings regularly. “The NSA presence is always the elephant in the room. I can’t believe I’m in in a meeting with the NSA. There is a bizarre aspect to it.”
The state’s Mormon news site, KSL, complained in 2012 that they hadn’t been able to get the NSA to respond to their “nagging questions” about whether the center makes the area a target for terrorism. Most of the paper’s stories about the center end with more questions than answers. “But is that what will really go on at Bluffdale’s huge new complex, once the computers and data servers start humming?” the paper asked in October 2012. “Frankly, we don’t know, because it’s all a big secret.”
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