Booting Up: New NSA Data Farm Takes Root In Utah

Sep 23, 2013
Originally published on September 23, 2013 6:38 pm

The National Security Agency won't say exactly when it will fully rev up its newest and biggest data farm in the Salt Lake City suburb of Bluffdale, Utah. There will be no "grand opening" or celebratory barbecue outside the sprawling facility, which is five times the size of the Ikea down the road.

But, according to NSA spokeswoman Vanee' Vines, "We turn each machine on as it is installed, and the facility is ready for that installation to begin."

Those machines are computer servers — enough to fill four warehouse-size "data halls" covering 100,000 square feet.

NSA won't say how many servers are involved or reveal the data capacity of the $1.2 billion Utah Data Center. But running the complex requires 65 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 65,000 homes. The electronics generate so much heat that they would fry without 1.5 million gallons of cooling water a day.

More than 1 million additional square feet here are devoted to generators, diesel storage tanks, power substations, backup battery banks, water tanks, chilling plants and an office building. The annual maintenance costs are pegged at $20 million.

"No Intent Here To Become Big Brother"

"We built it big because we could," says Lonny Anderson, the NSA's chief information officer, who runs the agency's data acquisition, storage and processing effort. "It's a state-of-the-art facility," Anderson adds. "It's the nicest data center in the U.S. government — maybe one of the nicest data centers there is."

It also gives the federal government's intelligence agencies easier access to the email, text message, cellphone and landline metadata the NSA collects, "for foreign intelligence purpose[s]," as Vine insists.

"They are looking for particular words, particular names, particular phrases or numbers ... information that's on their target list," says James Bamford, author of three books about the NSA and a 2012 Wired magazine article focused on the new data center.

But Anderson asserts that there "is no intent here to become 'Big Brother.' ... There's no intent to watch American citizens," he says. "There is an attempt to ensure Americans are safe. And in some cases, the things you've read about the accesses we have [and] the capability we've developed are all about doing that."

With the new center, that capability grows from smaller and dispersed centers in Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, Georgia and Maryland to an interconnected data cloud that is supposed to be both secure and exclusive to the U.S. Intelligence Community, the coalition of federal agencies responsible for foreign intelligence analysis.

"In the past, for every particular activity you needed, you created a repository to store that data," Anderson explains. "And it was very purpose-built to do 'X,' whatever 'X' was. The cloud enables us to ... put that data together and make sense of it in a way that, in the past, we couldn't do."

There's also a compliance component to NSA's cloud, Anderson says, in which the agency holds data — and restricts access — based on the requirements of federal law and the security clearances of the analysts seeking information. "As we ingest that data, we tag it in a certain way that ensures compliance," he says.

Bamford says Utah's contribution to the cloud will basically provide storage and will be accessible via fiber-optic cables to much of the NSA's infrastructure around the world.

In fact, NSA says the center will employ only 100 or so technicians to keep the infrastructure running. Intelligence analysts will log in remotely from NSA facilities in and outside the U.S.

"It'll function as ... NSA's external hard drive," Bamford adds. "The information is too voluminous and going by too fast, so one of the functions of Bluffdale will be to act sort of as a buffer."

Encrypted information can be temporarily stored for days, weeks or longer, in case an encryption key is developed later. Information about known terrorist locations can be stored and tapped later if a sudden terrorist threat is detected.

"Built To Last"

NSA's Anderson says the total size of the facility's data halls should not be used to calculate the storage capacity of the center, as some have tried to do.

NSA whistle-blower William Binney has put the capacity at 5 zettabytes of data storage — the equivalent of 1.25 trillion DVDs, according to Cisco Systems. Other estimates have ranged as high as 1 yottabyte, or 250 trillion DVDs.

The NSA says the site's location near Salt Lake City will simplify staffing and the largely treeless surroundings will make the center relatively easy to secure and monitor.
George Frey / Getty Images

"It's hard to discern capacity from the outside looking in," notes Bamford, who also suggests state-of the-art data compression could give the NSA a greater amount of storage capacity than conventional measures indicate.

The Utah Data Center was "built ... to last," Anderson says. "I've got new cryptologic centers in Georgia, Texas and Hawaii that are already undersized because we've outgrown them."

The Utah facility also provides backup for NSA's other data centers. Anderson recalls a power outage in 2006, when data storage was concentrated at NSA headquarters outside Washington.

"Basically, NSA went down for three days," he says. "The nation can't afford NSA to go down for three days. So we've spent an inordinate amount of time, effort and money to make sure that I've got redundancy in multiple power grids and multiple locations."

NSA chose Utah for five basic attributes, ranging from the cost of power to the relative ease of securing the site, according to Harvey Davis, the agency's director for logistics and installations.

And that security is tight. "We don't allow anyone on without the proper vetting and the proper business purpose," Davis told me, adding, with a smile, "You can't come in."

But during construction last fall, NSA invited in local private data farm operators for limited tours, including Pete Ashdown of XMission, Utah's first Internet service provider.

"You have to get through several layers of security to actually get back to where the computers and servers and systems would be operating," Ashdown recalls. "They steered around those. They wouldn't let us anywhere near them."

With Leaks About Surveillance, New Questions

During the tour, the NSA official guiding Ashdown mentioned another reason for the Utah location: the "patriotism" of Utahns.

"That really rubbed me wrong," says Ashdown, a privacy advocate. "I believe that patriotism is questioning your government, questioning authority, making sure that the government stays in line, to preserve the government."

This summer's revelations about the NSA's data-gathering practices and the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden prompted two relatively small protests — one at the data center site and one at the state capitol in Salt Lake City.

"When the NSA executes broad surveillance on American citizens, they are harming my idea of this country," Ashdown told the crowd, estimated at about 25 people, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Then, last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Salt Lake City was a target of widespread NSA and FBI surveillance before and during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Unnamed officials told the Journal that the agencies had an arrangement with the local phone company, which "monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area."

State and Olympic officials reacted by saying they weren't aware of the surveillance but supported the notion, given that the Olympics were held just a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The Olympics had been targeted by terrorists in the past," said Gary Herbert, Utah's Republican governor, at a news conference. "So I cut them a little slack in that regard."

Any concern about NSA surveillance didn't affect Herbert's willingness to welcome the NSA's data center. "It's not the building. Having the facilities here is not the problem," Herbert said. "It's the people inside the building — those who run the NSA."

NSA spokeswoman Vines would not comment on the Journal report but again emphasized that "NSA's collection activities always have a foreign intelligence purpose."

Utah commuters and passing travelers have plenty of opportunity to think, worry or cheer about the NSA Data Center, if they care to. The entire complex is plainly visible from I-15 to the 145,000 people driving by every day.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The National Security Agency is now installing and revving up enough computer servers to fill four warehouse-sized buildings near Salt Lake City. The NSA's newest and biggest data farm covers 100,000-square-feet for computers alone. On top of that, add another million square feet for power substations, backup generators, offices and fuel tanks.

As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, it's part of the agency's effort to combat what it calls foreign threats.


HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It's supposed to be a super secret place, but it's clearly visible to the 140,000 commuters who pass it every day here on Interstate-15 at Bluffdale, Utah. The massive white and windowless buildings look like ghostly shopping malls. Very few enter. But last fall, Pete Ashdown was among the local private data center operators invited in for a very selective tour.

PETE ASHDOWN: You have to get through several layers of security to actually get back to where the computers and servers and systems would be operating. They steered around those. They wouldn't let us anywhere near them. And then when you go into other parts of the rooms, like the generator rooms, they look like large warehouses that have been constructed to hold these large generation systems. The electrical rooms look like a power plant. It's very ordinary stuff.

BERKES: The NSA says the Utah facility is its biggest yet, storing data once spread among older and smaller data centers. It's part of a new, secure and exclusive data cloud for U.S. intelligence analysts around the world. Writer James Bamford describes it this way.

JAMES BAMFORD: It'll function as sort of a hard drive, in essence. You know, you might be able to picture this as NSA's external hard drive.

BERKES: Bamford wrote three books about the agency in a detailed Utah Data Center story for Wired magazine.

BAMFORD: The NSA puts these secret rooms that have a lot of servers and computers in there. And they look for information going across the wires - email communications and so forth. And they're looking for particular words or particular names, particular phrases or numbers. They're looking for information that's on their target list.

BERKES: This information moves at the speed of light. So one of the functions of the new Utah center is to provide a kind of holding cell, a buffer as the NSA calls it, where data can sit for days or weeks, permitting searching when needed.

Lonny Anderson is the agency's chief information officer.

LONNY ANDERSON: We built four data halls. You can see it from the air, right? So I've got the ability to replicate things in multiple data halls. I've got the ability to test in one data hall. I've got the ability, actually, some flex room in a data hall.

BERKES: So don't believe the capacity estimates, Anderson says, based on the 100,000 square foot size of the data halls. They've ranged from five zettabytes to one yottabyte. That equals one trillion to 250 trillion DVDs. More significant, he says, is the Utah center's capacity for backup.

ANDERSON: So if you go back to 2006, we had a huge power outage. Basically, NSA went down for three days. The nation can't afford NSA to go down for three days. So we've spent an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money to make sure I've got redundancy in multiple power grids in multiple locations.

BERKES: The costs in Utah are $1.2 billion, enough power for 65,000 homes, and 1.5 million gallons of water a day to keep those servers cool. About a hundred technicians will keep the place running. The NSA picked Utah because the power is cheap and the people are patriotic. At least, that's what Internet provider and privacy advocate Pete Ashdown was told on his tour.

ASHDOWN: That really rubbed me wrong because I believe that patriotism is questioning your government, questioning authority, making sure that the government stays in line, to preserve the government, because if it's out of line it's not going to last very long.

BERKES: Revelations about NSA data gathering prompted two relatively small protests in Utah this summer. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA and FBI monitored all email and text messages in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. An NSA spokeswoman won't confirm or deny the report, but insists that the agency's activities, including those now beginning at its Utah Data Center, always have a foreign intelligence purpose.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.