Big Brother's big data is coming to Utah


Last year, with a great deal of prescience, Wired magazine published James Bamford’s long form story describing Bluffdale, Utah where “Big Love and Big Brother have become uneasy neighbors,” and where, off of Beef Hollow Road, construction was underway on a building five times the size of the U.S. Capitol.

The building, which Bamford describes as “the final piece of a complex puzzle assembled over the last decade...” is the National Security Agency’s Utah Data Center. Located at Camp Williams on Utah National Guard Land about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, the building will be the country’s largest spy center when it opens in October 2013.

Marshall Swearingen recently put the cybersecurity hub on the map for High Country News, as one of the West’s big data colonies. According to NPR, the center is so massive that it has its own power substation, and will use as much energy as 65,000 homes. It’s going to take 1.5 million gallons of water a day to keep its computers from sizzling. By some estimates those computers will be able to handle five zettabytes of data. William Binney, a long-time NSA technical director turned whistleblower interpreted that obscure unit of measure for NPR, and it means there will be enough storage in Bluffdale to contain “on the order of 100 years worth of the worldwide communications, phones and emails…"

But Wired’s reporting on Bluffdale didn’t blow up the media like the Guardian’s and Washington Post’s reports last week, which were based on a former NSA contractor’s leaked documents, and revealed a classified court order by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) authorizing government collection of data related to American’s telephone calls, information such as numbers dialed and the length of calls, and the time of calls. It also disclosed part of a classified presentation about a web data collection program, called PRISM, the particulars of which are still emerging.

The current (and hopefully ongoing) debate about the extent to which the Obama administration’s NSA, with authorization from the 2001 Patriot Act, is gathering domestic data is putting some focus back on the Utah data center. It made me wonder, how did a $1.2 billion federal spy center end up in Utah anyway? Afterall, this is the same state whose governor just signed a state’s rights bill asking the federal government to return 20 million acres of federal land to Utah, and also approved a law prohibiting federal officers, at risk of arrest, from enforcing state or local laws in Utah (the feds sued and received an injunction on the law). Now, the Utah Attorney General is asserting that federal officers and rangers can’t enforce Utah regulations on federal public lands.

If Utahns are really worried about government power. why aren’t they looking more closely at their backyards, not just at national monuments? How much do attempts to limit federal power by grabbing up public land and ammunition matter if the feds are quietly farming our personal data? Partisan politics are dangerous for our democracy when they distract us from debating how much privacy we’re willing to compromise for national security, and how much power we’re willing to give the government to protect us.

And when it comes to surveillance, it looks like our tolerance for it is quite partisan. While recent outcry from congressional representatives has not necessarily fallen on party lines, it’s disheartening to see how fickle the public is when it comes to government scandals. A recent Washington Post-Pew Research poll seems to indicate that we’re more likely to give federal snooping a pass if we voted for the party doing it. The poll found that “in early 2006, 37 percent of Democrats found the [NSA’s] activities acceptable; now nearly twice that number — 64 percent — say the use of telephone records is okay. By contrast, Republicans slumped from 75 percent acceptable to 52 percent today.” Wow, come on sheeple. This kind partisan group-think can’t be good for holding the government accountable, no matter the party.

The fact that the data center found a home in Utah and not one of the other 37-some sites examined the NSA examined can be traced back to power, both the amount of power the Wasatch Front’s transmission lines can handle (and its affordability), and the power of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest serving member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who worked to bring the center to the state.

Now, there’s a wrinkle in that cheap energy for the NSA, as the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The Utah Legislature passed an energy tax bill in March that could cost the NSA an additional $2.4 million per year on top of its $40 million power bill. But after the NSA protested, it looks like Gov. Gary Herbert will be working with the NSA and the state to keep the spy agency from being charged under the new law—powerful indeed.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.

Data center construction at Camp Williams courtesy of Bing.

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