Tech

When The NSA Comes To Town

For the people in Bluffdale, Utah, home of the NSA’s massive data center, the agency’s scandals carry special meaning. The NSA’s tense, worrying relationship with its small-town hosts.

Composite by John Gara / AP

BLUFFDALE, Utah — “There is no data center here.”

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 reading erased 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.”

George Frey / Getty Images

The Utah Data Center is located in Bluffdale, 25 miles south of Salt Lake City. Driving along the main highway, you can see the complex from miles away. But few people actually drive by the center itself. “It isn’t like it is built in downtown,” explains Mark Reid, Bluffdale’s city manager. “It’s in an area we aren’t allowed, and never go to and never have.”

There is empty land all around the buildings. “I always build everything expandable,” Harvey Davis, NSA director of installations and logistics, told the local Salt Lake Tribune newspaper a few weeks ago. Across from the facility is the National Guard Army base. Nearby is a Veterans Memorial Park. There is one house, rumored to be home to a polygamist family. It’s about a mile in each direction to any commercial business. The scene is one of sage brush, huge desert skies, and lots of electric wires.

The surrounding area is known for its LDS churches, as well as one of the nation’s largest dinosaur museums. But like so many places in America, it is best described not as a traditional town, but as a centerless collection of strip malls, big box stores, and fast-food restaurants. When I asked around about where the contractors might go to hang out, someone suggested the McDonald’s inside the nearby Walmart. On Sunday night, the most bustling scene I could find was the new Popeye’s, where people were waiting half an hour for fast-food chicken. The neighborhoods were stocked with pre-fab houses; this being Mormon country, there were few bars. People were extremely friendly, and happy to talk, but it was a hard town to crack. I spent a lot of time circling in my car, trying to find the “there” there.

Technically the Data Center is located in Bluffdale, but the “Welcome to Bluffdale” sign appears on the road after you pass the facility. The “Welcome to Lehi” sign is down the road in the other direction. Salt Lakers consider Bluffdale, population 7,800, to be the boonies. There are few reasons for people to go to Bluffdale; the NSA pointedly does not consider its data center to be a new one.

The center spans two counties, and the NSA doesn’t pay the city taxes. It has its own police department, and contracts outside the town for fire. Standing nearby, you aren’t really clear about where you are, except next to a place where you’re not supposed to be.

“They had a ribbon cutting. We weren’t invited to that. It’s like not being invited to a wedding. You can’t ask why you weren’t,” Reid told me. “But it wasn’t surprising. We asked if we could take [the county] mayors around on a tour and they said no.” At no point did the NSA offer Bluffdale residents a chance for public comment on the project.

“I don’t know much more than anyone else,” says Reid, pointing out, somewhat unbelievably, that he doesn’t even know anyone who works there. “All we do is deliver the water.”

In order to build on these dry hills of sage brush in the far outskirts of town, the NSA had to pay for millions in water, electricity, and sewage infrastructure, which the town hopes will pave the way for more businesses to open in the area. “I’m hoping it is an ancillary benefit to the city,” Reid says. “I’ve seen in other similar cases with data centers that lot of companies like to come and build close to them.”

Utah competed for the NSA project in hopes that it would bring jobs and help cement the state as an epicenter of technology and defense. But most of the implied benefits — promises, as some felt — started to crumble, and quickly. The agency hired 10,000 construction workers, but the permanent staff turned out to be less than 200. The center helps give the NSA the capability for massive surveillance, but the facility itself is essentially a giant storage unit. “The mother of all data centers,” as Rich Brown, dean of engineering who has worked with the NSA and toured the facility, describes it, is a lights-out facility, which means it could just about be run remotely. Analysts tap into the data from elsewhere, but the building is basically the physical manifestation of the NSA’s Cloud.

The NSA even dangled the potential of research collaborations in front of the University of Utah, in nearby Salt Lake City. They never materialized. The university worked with the agency to set up a certification program to train students to work at the data center, but didn’t get any federal funding in return.

The main reason the NSA chose Utah was because of its cheap electricity. It also has abundant water, immunity from most types of natural disasters, and abundant open land, factors that have driven other companies, including Twitter, eBay, Overstock, Microsoft, and Adobe, to place their data centers in the state.

But there is something deeper than cheap electricity — which the NSA and politicians courting the agency repeatedly called Utah’s “patriotism.”

“Utah’s population is not Berkeley or Cambridge,” former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who helped court the NSA, told the Salt Lake Tribune three weeks after Snowden’s leak. “You wouldn’t be hiring folks who would be picketed by their neighbors or any of the other kind of problems you might run into somewhere else.”

The state is staunchly Republican and conservative. It is also known for unusually regressive laws regarding internet freedom. The state’s attorney general can request information from an ISP based on simple suspicion of a crime, requiring only an administrative subpoena. A politician once proposed a bill outlawing Wi-Fi because it gave teens easy access to porn.

Some locals even floated the idea to me that it is the area’s Mormon roots, and penchant for following authority, that prevent people from speaking out against the center. But Mormon teachings include calls to defend the Constitution. Turning spy programs on American citizens goes against that.

“Over and over the NSA was saying that Utah is patriotic, implying there isn’t going to be a lot of dust-up over the NSA being here,” says Ashdown. “It disturbed me.”

There was some dust-up. A few days after the Snowden news broke, there was a small protest at the state capital. Then, on July 4, over 100 people marched down the shoulder of the highway to the data center. It was a mishmash of factions, including Glenn Beck types, suburban moms, college kids, IT people, gay activists, and Mormons, who marched along the highway from the Veterans Memorial Park to the road leading to the facility.

“It was not the counterculture movement. It was happy-go-lucky normal people,” says Dan Garfield, one of the main organizers, a young, married Mormon who listens to indie rock and works in marketing. He definitely doesn’t fit the “activist” profile.

The NSA put up a makeshift chain-link fence to keep them out. It kind of cracked Garfield up. Did the NSA really think they were going to storm the building? The protesters simply hung up red, white, and blue ribbons.

As a follow-up protest action, the group is planning on adopting the highway so that it can have a regular presence with “Restore the Fourth” signs on the road leading to the center. It’s also planning a DIY class on encryption.

“I’m a geek at heart. I thought the data center was so cool in terms of big tech,” says Garfield. “There are a lot of data centers around here, so it didn’t seem so unusual that it would be here. It is almost like we have tuned it out. We assume that they listen to our phone calls. It is like Orwellian double speak where they convince you that it is normal.”

“I would have been astounded if someone had come out to counter protest,” says Garfield. “Even detractors’ comments [on our website] said protesting is stupid. But it was about the method, not the mission.”

Even the police at the protest, who were none too thrilled by having to work on July 4, implied to the protesters that they supported the message.

Snowden’s revelations hit hard, but in the Bluffdale area they hit harder. For the locals who helped build the center, train the workforce, and share engineering insight, it was personal. They are still trying to reconcile their criticism with their complicity.

“There are people [on the faculty] that have ethical qualms with what is going on over at the data center or at the NSA period,” says Might, the University of Utah professor. Some of those people have asked Brown about whether the university should be cooperating with the NSA.

“My answer is, ‘I think it is very important that the NSA and all government agencies abide by the Constitution,’” says Brown when confronted with the question in his office. “I hope that they do that; I trust that they do that. That is the government’s job to make sure that they do. Our job is to provide a workforce.”

“We want to be good citizens,” continues Brown. “We want to educate students to meet the needs of local economy and our defense capabilities.”

It is a fine line to walk, condemning while still participating. Brown stresses that the curriculum arms students to work at any of Utah’s numerous data centers.

“Speaking personally, not professionally, it is against the Fourth Amendment to collect this extreme amount of data on U.S. citizens,” says Might, who asked the NSA to fund a separate research project before the Snowden revelations. “For me, personally, I would have a very difficult collaboration on any effort that was enabling the surveillance of American citizens. I would refuse to do anything like that.”

I asked him whether that conflicted with his role setting up the curriculum that trains students to work at the center, which enables mass surveillance.

“That isn’t my call to make. I’m just a facilitator,” he says. “None of us knew what was going on over there [when we first met with the NSA], and to some extent we still don’t really know what is going on there.”

That story again: We had no idea.Now it’s too late.

“I don’t think I’d be too sympathetic with someone feeling like they got pulled into something,” says Brown. “You can’t say I had no idea that they spied,” he says. “Yes, that is what they are there for. The question is how they do it.”

“It is like if you are working with the military and you find out they shot someone,” he says. “Oh my word! Well, yeah, they do that.”

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

More News
Now Buzzing