By Justine Sharrock
The National Security Agency’s massive Utah Data Center, designed for communications storage and processing is already up and running, despite agency claims the center won’t open until September. Opening the facility — the largest of its kind in history — is the key final step that will allow the agency to collect and store massive amounts of data on United States citizens. The NSA has numerous other data centers, but the Utah facility will be the central repository, enabling data collection on an unprecedented scale.
And according to Russ Tice, a former NSA intelligence analyst who still maintains close ties with numerous colleagues at the agency, it’s not just metadata — which has been a key distinction in the administration’s defense of its intelligence gathering programs. The agency, according to Tice, is currently able to collect the full contents of digital communications. That includes the contents of emails, text messages, Skype communications, and phone calls, as well as financial information, health records, legal documents, and travel documents. This comports with statements given this week by a former senior intelligence official, claiming that NSA Director Keith Alexander’s ethos was to “collect it all, tag it, store it … And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”
The NSA’s ability to collect and store such vast quantities of information is difficult to grasp. But so is the enormous footprint of the data center in Bluffdale, Utah, 25 miles south of Salt Lake City. The facility, which cost the government $2 billion, covers 1 million square feet, 100,000 of which is purely for computer servers and storage hardware. According to James Bamford’s Wired magazine article published last year, “The Pentagon is attempting to expand its worldwide communications network, known as the Global Information Grid, to handle yottabytes (10^24 bytes) of data. (A yottabyte is a septillion bytes—so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.)”
One of the key problems that the Utah facility fixes is the sheer amount of electricity needed to run the machines. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the facility requires 65 megawatts of electricity a day to run the facility. (By comparison, a single megawatt is enough to power 100 homes.) According to Wired, the facility has its own electrical substation built by Rocky Mountain Power — which, as a side benefit, makes it more difficult to monitor the usage of electricity, which can serve as rough guidance to the center’s computing power and usage. It is also highly energy efficient, built to meet LEED Silver certification.
The Utah Data Center, located on an Army National Guard base, also has its own water treatment facilities (it will use an estimated 1,210 gallons of water per minute, mostly for cooling), chiller plant, vehicle inspection facility, visitor control center, backup generators, and, of course, serious security with its own police force and perimeter security.