NSA Utah Datacenter May Already Be Watching You

Bug on the Circuit Board

Despite controversy, NSA’s Utah datacenter may already be operational.

The secret, Brobdingnagian datacenter the National Security Agency (NSA) is building in Bluffdale, Utah may have quietly become active weeks earlier than the not-quite-publicly-scheduled date by which it was expected to go online.

The $1.5 billion facility, which will serve double-duty as both a repository for data from NSA digital eavesdropping efforts and as a backup for the agency’s five other datacenters, had been expected to go live at the end of September or beginning of October 2013. Construction began in early 2011.

Rather than wait for a formal grand opening day during which all four of the facility’s megascale datacenters could go live together, however, the NSA may simply be starting work as soon as the equipment for each task is ready to go, according to a Sept. 26 story in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“We turn each machine on as it is installed, and the facility is ready for that installation to begin,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said during an extremely restricted press conference and tour of the Bluffdale, Utah facility Sept. 23.

Vimes didn’t confirm in the interview that any of the massive compute or storage farms had yet been installed at the time of the interview, only that the facility was ready to go as soon as the first modules were installed. The 1 million-square-foot datacenter facility, built within the Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams in Bluffdale, Utah (22 miles south of Salt Lake City), includes four separate datacenter facilities. At 100,000 square feet apiece, each of the four is as large as the megascale datacenters relied on by cloud providers such as Google and Microsoft to provide instant-response search- and application services worldwide.

Rather than using the cloud to push out data and application services, however, the NSA facilities will suck data in, serving as an active repository for NSA digital surveillance activities and as a backup for the agency’s five other datacenters.

The NSA hosted tours of the center for local politicians during the construction, and, more recently, carefully orchestrated and access-limited tours for media covering both the datacenter and the controversy over the NSA’s surveillance methods.

During early stages of the datacenter’s construction, NSA officials reassured Utah residents that the datacenter was both safe and important due to its role in protecting national security and the principles under which the NSA conducted its surveillance operations.

“We understand what the principles are that govern the nation; we take an oath to the Constitution, and we take that very seriously,” NSA Deputy Director John Inglis said during meetings with media and local politicians during the spring, according to the Tribune.

A week later, British newspaper The Guardian published the first in a series of leaks from a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, alleging that the agency spied on the phone calls and Internet activity of both Americans and foreign citizens – apparently violating rules against surveillance within the U.S. without a warrant and supervision by special courts.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced Sept. 24 that he would push legislation designed to “recalibrate” the attitudes of the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, which apparently includes the rules under which they’re supposed to operate. “The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records [permitted under the Patriot Act] must end,” Leahy said. “The government has not made its case that this is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy rights.”

It doesn’t look as if the NSA can look for much help from the other side of the political aisle, either.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va) made a similar announcement Sept. 25, promising NSA-restricting legislation from the Republican-led House as well. Briefings with U.S. intelligence officials left Goodlatte “convinced that further protections are necessary,” according to TheHill.com.

Neither effort is likely to have much immediate impact on what appears to be the final implementation stages for the Bluffdale facility, however. NSA spokesperson Vine insisted during the press event that data collected in the facility was “for foreign intelligence purposes,” according to a Sept. 23 story from NPR.org.

In fact, it appears NSA officials will remain proud of the megafacility, whether it’s online or not, sanctioned by proscriptive legislation or not, decried by civil libertarians and IT security specialists or not.

“We built it big because we could,” NSA CIO Lonny Anderson said, according to NPR. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility. It’s the nicest data center in the U.S. government — maybe one of the nicest data centers there is.”

 

Image: NSA.gov

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