America’s new data center: The Biggest Big Brother of All (TBIJ)

From the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

In the small town of Bluffdale in the Utah desert, the US government is halfway to completing a gargantuan complex designed to store and trawl through billions of phone calls, emails, and other global communications. As the UK government reveals its own plans to carry out mass surveillance, a lengthy piece in May’s Wired reveals the full extent of the US’s ambitions to capture and spy on almost everything that is said online or on the phone.

The Utah Data Center is the new hub in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) network of surveillance centres: a sprawling $2bn (£1.25bn) complex that takes the US one step closer to ‘total information awareness’.

The centre is so big it’s hard to get your head around the figures quoted in the article. Ten thousand builders are working on it. It will use an estimated $40m of electricity every year, according to one estimate. Much of this will be spent powering four 2,300 sq m halls filled with servers capable of storing a truly enormous amount of data – Wired mentions Pentagon ambitions to store yottabytes of data (septillion bytes of data).

The centre will ‘intercept, decipher, analyse and store vast amounts of the world’s communications from satellites and underground and undersea cables of international, foreign and domestic networks,’ Wired reporter James Bamford says. Even the most apparently insignificant scraps of data will be captured and stored – in case they later become important: ‘private emails, mobile phone calls and Google searches, as well as personal data trails – travel itineraries, purchases and other digital “pocket litter”‘, Bamford adds.

Click here to read the Bureau’s State of Surveillance investigation, in collaboration with WikiLeaks and Privacy International.

But the Utah Data Center has another, more secret purpose: cracking cryptoanalysis to allow the US security agencies to read foreign diplomatic and military communications, as well as confidential financial or personal messages, scouring the ‘deep web’ of password-protected and otherwise encrypted information.

The Bluffdale project is the next step in the rapid escalation of the NSA’s surveillance powers, and will cement its position as the ‘largest, most covert and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created’, as Bamford points out.

And as with the UK government’s plans to monitor email and other communications, announced this weekend, much of the Utah Data Center’s phenomenal surveillance capability is directed at US citizens. The US government has installed monitoring rooms in the facilities of US telecommunications companies, Wired reports, enabling it to monitor emails and phone calls with ease – the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ programme that caused outcry when it surfaced.

Former NSA official William Binney explains to Wired how the NSA’s ‘warantless wiretapping’ domestic surveillance programme may have been larger than ever reported at the time: he helped design the systems, and explains that the US had a choice over where it placed the surveillance equipment.

By installing it at the landing points where internet cables enter the country, the NSA could have limited interception to foreign communications only. That wasn’t what the US decided to do: instead, it built intercept stations within the US, allowing it to access the bulk of domestic traffic too. Binney says the programme could tap 1.5 billion calls a day.

And that’s what the government is capable of before the Utah Data Center comes online: the massive codebreaking power and storage that the Bluffdale project adds will take the NSA’s surveillance capability to staggering new levels.

As Bamford points out, although this level of surveillance is often justified as being essential for fighting counterterrorism, the NSA was unaware of both the ‘underpants bomber’ in 2009 and the Times Square bomber in 2010. In both those cases, incompetence on the would-be attackers’ parts, rather than the sophisticated surveillance network, prevented serious attacks.

Bamford, who is also the author of a book on the NSA, lays out a shadowy, complex world in impressively clear and detailed terms. Even the complex, techy aspects of the project are digestible – although this sheer accessibility makes it hard to stave off the feeling of powerlessness and paranoia that shadowy forces could, if they chose, learn so much about your life.

He uses the Utah Data Center as a route into explaining the vast intelligence infrastructure that allows the NSA to monitor everything from walkie-talkie messages in foreign countries to private government communications of both allied and enemy nations. Bamford also outlines the supercomputers being built by the NSA to boost its codebreaking powers.

It certainly doesn’t make for soothing reading – but it’s the kind of investigation Wired can do better than anybody else, and it’s a useful reminder that even before the UK government rolls out its latest surveillance programme, we are all being watched already.

Click here to read the Wired article.

Mirrored from BIJ

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Responses | Print |

11 Responses

  1. Juan, this is an interesting example of how important is to get expert opinion. James Bamford has very good insights into the National Security Agency, but he is NOT an expert at data centers, which shows in his article.

    As I wrote on my own blog, and I translate from the Swedish, the fact is that compared to “civilian” data centers, the NSA:s new data center in Bluffdale UTAH is not especially impressive. “four 25,000-square-foot facilities house rows and rows of servers.” .

    Compare that to the following item in the press recently link to AT&T to create data center, $900 million impact AT&T announced plans to construct a 900,000 square foot data center facility on Countryside Road, beside the existing T5 data center park, according to a 14-year plan. link to

    My impression is that if anything, the US government is playing catchup with companies like Google, Facebook and Apple in the data center space.

    • True Lennart. But the NSA data center doesn’t exist to serve the masses as the giant centers built by ATT, Google, etc. are. It is there to spy on us! And in that regard it is both disgusting and frightening. Even if the use today is legitimate, who knows how it will be employed in the future to frighten citizens away from activism. What risks to whistle blowers?

      The tragic consequence of us never having honestly examined 911 and facing the truth that either gross negligence or outright participation by our government at the time suppressed the ample warnings which were there. The ludicrous and extremely expensive Homeland Security procedures at airports, and all this dangerous and expensive spying infrastructure has resulted from us not assessing the real causes and addressing them appropriately.

  2. It is still a ridiculous waste of space, enrgy, brainpower, money etc to have all this for potential “terrorists” whose likelihood of attack is alost nil. Why would they? As bin Laden himself said, you just need to go to a remote spot and cry “AlQaeda” and the USans are terrified.
    Ralph Nader pointed out that even before Obama’s further loosening of any industrial safety rules, the USA has nearly 60 000 fatal work-related injuries per year, putting to near oblivion the deaths of 9/11, imputed to Islamic terrorists who have never been tried.

  3. Osama bin Laden clearly won the war. To think that one man with a small band of 3rd-world thugs could turn the most powerful and wealthiest nation into a police state in 10 short years just baffles the mind. This is little more than the United States wallowing in absolute fear.

  4. Just to make the context a tad more accurate, Bluffdale (pop. 8000 or so) is no more a “small town…… in the Utah desert” than Beverly Hills is a small town in the California desert. Actually Bluffdale is one of dozens of side-by-side towns of 5,000 to 50,000 or so making up the Salt Lake City version of suburbia.

  5. Gosh, how far can we let this surveillance stuff go, and what do we do about it.

  6. Danh: Agree, it is clearly not good that any democratic government spies on its people, and one can rightfully ask if there is any real difference between what is happening in the US and China in that regard. I.e. in the kind of data they collect of their own citizens.

    But then we must remember that Google, Facebook, Twitter etc also collect information on their users that are every bit as intrusive as that collected by the NSA. That is of great concern of European governments but less so in the US

    The main point I was making though is that contrary to what James Bamford asserted in his otherwise excellent article in Wired, the NSA data center in Utah is not terribly impressive. In point of fact it is positively puny. Which kind of puts the entire story in a somewhat different light.

    “NASA Builds Positively Puny Data Center in Utah” just doesn’t quite grab you in the throat does it? :-)

  7. The Catch 22 of the new about to be imposed “Ministries of Truth” for US and UK are somewhat laughable if they aren’t sadly tragic.

    The questions for those intellectually challenged imposing these monstrous impositions on personal liberties are;
    OK, so now how do you yourselves, and your kids, avoid being scrutinized? And the impositions too, with the illegal uses of the advantages sure to happen? Especially once you are no longer in power?

    Once, I was in a secret operation that the incoming government immediately disbanded and never understood what it was or anything about it.
    Originally it had been created by Churchill.

    Shouldn’t Representatives of the folks have to pass an IQ/mental fitness evaluation before being allowed to have any authority?

  8. United States District Judge Anna Diggs-Taylor of Detroit several years ago ruled the ECHELON eavesdropping program of the NSA unconstitutional but got reversed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

    There are serious questions of violtions of Fourth Amendment proscriptions against searches and seizures by this conduct of the government. Why courts would not enjoin this type of conduct is beyond me given the current scope of privacy rights granted citizens by recent United States Suprem Court opinions.

  9. in Utah. not surprising when I lived in Cairo I noticing that so many people I met who worked for the USA’s Dept of Defense were young Mormons, I finally asked, “what does the DoD recruit mormons?” “Actually, yes” was their answer. If you know anything about Mormonism there is a strong hierarchy, strong sense of loyalty, ethics, but an ethic that does not challenge authority nor is encouraged to think/ challenge certain belief systems.

    And as far as surveillance goes, data mining and text mining is a huge part of Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing with massive potential for growth.

Comments are closed.