Water in the data desert, Bluffdale, UT
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Water in the data desert, Bluffdale, UT

The NSA built one of the biggest ever data centers in the world in Bluffdale, Utah. And now locals want to cut off its water supply. I went to visit. This article is coming out in the upcoming edition of Froh magazine.

We parked on the other side of the highway from the low flat building and took a good look. Since three-quarters of it is underground, there wasn’t much to see – only a windowless grey stripe peeking warily above the ground. Between us, next to the road that led up to the building, sat a Utah state patrol car. One cop, on his own.

“We shouldn’t go up there,” said Connor. Apparently, the last journalist who had gone up that road had had “an encounter” with security. “They don’t even let you into the parking lot – they don’t even let you on the road to the parking lot.”

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Meeting the cops

We’d just been to Connor’s office – a corner of his big, clean house, furnished with a thick green pile rug, and white shelves reaching up to the ceiling filled up with books about American history and law. The HQ of the man who protected liberty in the state of Utah: Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Utah, former director of the Utah Tenth Amendment Center, lobbyist and author of books and articles on the rights of the individual. He was also what he called a “clean-cut Mormon guy,” who lived with his one wife and two children and at least one dog in a small town a half-hour south of Salt Lake City.

In January this year Connor got the Utah State Legislature to pass a bill that forces the police to get a warrant to access any cellphone data, including its location. This particularly hampered police use of its “Stingray” – a mobile device that mimics cellphone towers so as to trick phones into giving up their information. Since any other phones in the area also get tricked, Stingrays can’t help but suck up their data too. What the NSA does globally, the Stingray does on your street. And thanks to Connor, the Utah State police now have to ask permission when they want to use it.

“I kinda have a problem with authority figures,” clean-cut Connor said next to me. “But you can go talk to him if you want.”

I crossed the highway. The cop got out of his car, sunglasses already on. While he watched me approach, another police vehicle, a chunky SUV, turned into the road, rolled around and stopped in front of me, nose to nose with the patrol car. Now I was approaching two cops – and another pair of sunglasses – sweat beading on both foreheads.

“Hi, I’m a journalist from Germany,” I said. “This is NSA property, isn’t it? I just wanted to ask where I’m allowed to go.”

“Anywhere up to that line,” he pointed to the edge of the road 20 metres behind me. “This is federal property.”

“Oh. So I can’t walk here?”

“That’s correct. And as a matter of fact, the highway patrolman stopped here because you committed a violation. You know what jaywalking is?”

I’ve never been exactly sure what jaywalking is, but I said yes anyway.

“Well, that was jaywalking. Ordinarily I could issue you with a citation.”

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The NSA’s Utah Data Center

“I’m sorry. I’m from Germany.”

“It don’t matter.”

Connor had now got out of his car, having suspended his problem with authority figures, and come up behind me.

“I actually have a question,” he said. “How come a Utah State policeman is guarding a federal facility? Why do Utah State taxpayers have to pay for a federal facility to be guarded?”

“We have an agreement with the federal authorities, sir,” said the cop, evenly. “There is no cost to the Utah taxpayer. And I am not guarding the facility, I am keeping order on the highway.”

“So you don’t actually know who is authorized to drive up and down this road?”

“That’s correct.”

“So you just sit here all day watching?” asked Connor, sort of making a joke. “Kinda boring, ain’t it?”

The cop made a non-committal noise with his nose. “I was just going to inform your friend here that I could issue him a citation for jaywalking,” he responded.

“Oh, he’s from Germany. He doesn’t know the law here.”

“Don’t matter,” the cop said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Then I didn’t tell him that in Germany you’re meant to wait for the green light too.

We headed back to the car. The highway patrolman, who hadn’t said anything, got back into his SUV and went on his way. But the other cop decided to cruise past me and Connor as we sat in the car. We watched him turn round a hundred metres behind us and come back again.

“He’s checking my registration number,” said Connor. “It’s okay. They have that already.”

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Pete in his data center

 

October 2012 was a more innocent time. That was when the National Security Agency invited Pete Ashdown, head of the data storage firm XMission, to go on a tour of the new data facility they were building in his neighbourhood. “They were trying to be friendly,” he said to me, sitting in his smart exposed-brick, renovated warehouse office. He liked telling this story.

Pete joined a small tour group of data experts. The guide was careful not to show them any computer hardware (“We saw empty cabinets. We saw where the stuff would go”) but Pete didn’t mind. He was still “star-struck with the sheer capacity and mythology of the NSA.” He saw enough generators to supply 30 megawatts to each side of the center (like any hard drive, the Utah Data Center has a redundant half that exists only to back up the other). And there was a big water tank and cooling towers. A man from the Utah state governor’s office of economic development was also there, and he kept asking how many jobs the data center would create. What would it do for the local economy? The guide only had a bald answer. “This is a lights-out facility,” he said. “At the most we’ll have minimal staff to replace hard drives and things, but we’ll manage everything remotely.”

According to the guide, there were two reasons why the NSA had decided to build its plant in Bluffdale. The first was cheap power – six times cheaper than in Hawaii, where the NSA has another data center. “And the second reason, he said, was that the people in Utah were patriotic,” said Pete. “I think that was code for people don’t question the government. That kinda rubbed me up the wrong way.”

“I call it a vampire,” he said. “It sucks water and electricity but gives nothing back.”

Pete never got to tell this story much until about a year ago, when Edward Snowden happened. Suddenly everyone wanted to know what Pete had seen inside the NSA’s brand new top secret facility in Bluffdale, which was still not operational (in fact no one really knows how complete it is). He gave a talk about his tour for the Utah Data Center Consortium – an informal club for people, including NSA officials, who specialise in storing a lot of digital information. Afterwards there was a collegial atmosphere and much banter. A man from the NSA came up to Pete, slapped his back and beamed, “We’d invite you back, Pete, but we’d never let you leave!” Pete laughed.

Storing data is a specialist business. You keep it in metal shelving – it looks like the kind you get from a hardware store and assemble with a wrench. You screw the servers neatly in place on top of each other, then you carefully clip together all the little wires coming out of them. Then the black boxes just blink away quietly forever, keeping information safe. Your job is to make sure the room is cool and secure, has enough bandwidth and a reliable power supply. Everyone in the UDCC did this. Some of them did it because it was their business – they were hoteliers for computer systems, renting out their racks to companies large and small, national and local – while others did it for the government.

The long, wide, flat-bottomed Salt Lake Valley is sometimes called the Silicon Slopes. On the wall in X-Mission’s reception area, there is a poster map of them, and it says that 4,300 tech companies have settled here. Digital networks have a long noble tradition here. The University of Utah in Salt Lake City housed one of first four nodes of what became the internet. Countless developers and programmers like Connor have made their home in Lehi, where Adobe, among others, have made a home. But Bluffdale, set slightly away from the highway that connects Salt Lake City and the university town of Provo, has always missed out on the boom. So when the NSA came round, Bluffdale was determined not to miss out, and offered the government excellent water and power rates. Finally, Bluffdale town council thought, we’re going to be on the Silicon Slopes wall-poster map.

So Bluffdale became the place where the NSA decided to bring the entire internet – or at least trillions of minute data messages about it – back home to the Slopes, to be kept in a $1.5-billion steel and concrete fridge half-buried in a mountain. It’s a digital storage facility the size of a village – big enough, according to Bill Binney, the NSA’s former technical director turned whistleblower, to store the entire world’s telecommunications data for a hundred years. That’s every single email, phone call, and text message – and it will only be full when you and virtually everyone you know are dead.

This is where Pete’s back-slapping government-employed peers work. This is the NSA’s computer computer cloud. It sits in its mountain, lights-out, sucking data through rope-thick fibre-optic cables that fan out past the fence and the guards and the car park and the highway and under the surrounding farming lands and the Oquirrh Mountains, across the arid valley, and out to NSA collection stations in Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Hawaii, and a variety of other listening posts around the USA. Whenever it needs to, NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland accesses this big Utah hard drive and data analysts patiently sift through it all. Pete doesn’t like it. “I think it’s a stain,” he says. “It’s a stain on the Utah tech industry that we continue to permit this thing to be here. And the NSA is a stain on the United States tech industry, because people don’t trust us anymore. If I’d have done the things they had done, I’d be thrown in jail for 30 years.”

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The NSA likes to keep a lot of things secret, including its utility bills. While electricity is cheap in Utah, water is a premium resource. This is the second driest state in the US – “a desert community” as Connor says – so when the Utah Data Center was announced, some local people were upset to learn that not only were the state’s resources being used to spy on them, but the NSA had got a cheap deal on those resources, and were paying less for the water than local farmers.

And it’s an ocean of water. According to the original blueprints (uncovered by Wired magazine), the Utah Data Center needs 1.7 million gallons of water every day to keep its data containers cool. Then civil liberties organizations understood that if the world’s most powerful intelligence agency had a weakness, it was utility bills. “We realized that the resource issue was problematic for the NSA,” said Mike Maharrey of the libertarian Tenth Amendment Center.

That’s because the US Constitution says states are not required to implement federal actions. “They can’t physically stop them – they can’t go up and put a lock on the gate at Bluffdale and kick the NSA out – but there’s nothing legally that says they have to do anything to cooperate,” said Maharrey. So the Tenth Amendment Center came with the idea for a law that stops states providing any material support for the NSA. If you want to spy on us, you’ll have to do it without our help.

In America, states’ rights is the kind of thing that gets a lot of different kinds of people excited. It’s an ancient tension that makes US politics so interesting. “This is one of the issues that obliterates the typical American left-right Democrat-Republican paradigm,” said Maharrey. “You’ll have people from the far-left – Greenpeace and traditional civil liberties and privacy advocates from the progressive side of the aisle – teaming up with folks from the Tea Party and the libertarian influenced part of the Republican Party, which is also concerned about dragnet spying. I mean really, who wants to be spied on?”

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Office Building, in downtown Salt Lake City

But what happens if Utah – this conservative desert community of mostly Mormons – really did pass this law, and make it illegal for its public agencies to supply water to the NSA? The federal government is unlikely to let their $1.5-billion building turn into a giant empty fridge. No one knows, but “it’d be a lot of fun to watch,” said Maharrey. “They would have to find another way to get the water. Would they build their own infrastructure and pipe it in themselves? Who knows what they would do?” That’s the point of the legislation – to pester the NSA.

At the top of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints office building, a pristine white tower that dominates downtown Salt Lake City, you get such a spectacular view that you can see the history of the valley. From high above the streets, it’s easy to imagine what it was like millions of years ago, when this barren valley was part of the ocean (prehistoric sea-shells still litter the surrounding mountain tops, they say). According to the slightly too friendly Mormon guide, you can see the mountain pass that the original settlers entered from in the 1840s. They believe this is the valley that God chose for them to live in after they were persecuted back in the East, and their leader Joseph Smith was slaughtered by a mob.

Most Mormons are not particularly bothered that the NSA has chosen to colonize a space here too. But it bothers Connor that his brothers and sisters aren’t more bothered. “I mean, we have a history of government persecution,” he said.