Utah data death star is symbol of NSA’s reach into US citizen’s lives

The Bluffdale sinkhole has quietly started sucking in mountains of data

When US National Security Agency director general Keith Alexander was asked a year ago if the Bluffdale centre would hold the data of Americans, he replied no: “We don’t hold data on US citizens.” Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

When US National Security Agency director general Keith Alexander was asked a year ago if the Bluffdale centre would hold the data of Americans, he replied no: “We don’t hold data on US citizens.” Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

Sun, Sep 29, 2013, 18:22

At the Husband and Wife lingerie store in Bluffdale, Utah, in Mormon country – where babies are welcome amid the sex toys and the motto is “Classy, tasteful and comfortable” – no one had heard of it.

At the Allami smoke shop across the street, adjacent to a hypnosis centre that can help you stop smoking, they were disturbed by it. Down the road at Quiznos, the young man making subs went on a rant about his insular community’s compliance with the government’s intrusions into Americans’ private lives.

Indeed, this valley of subdivisions, sagebrush and one of the remaining polygamous sects gets more exercised about the letter “c” – there’s a Kapuccino cafe, a Maverik convenience store and a Pikasso print shop – than they do about the National Security Agency’s secretive new $2 billion, one-million- square-foot data death star.

As Mark Reid, Bluffdale’s city manager, told the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt, the community’s initial excitement about new jobs faded because many of the data analysts are elsewhere. The good jobs, he says, are for security dogs who have a “plush” kennel.

“They don’t interact with anybody, they don’t let anybody come up there,” he said. “It is like they are not there. It is not like they are IBM and they join us for town days and sponsor a booth.”

Emperor Alexander
At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence committee in Washington on Thursday, Democratic senator Mark Udall of Colorado tried to pin down the shadowy and largely unchecked Emperor Alexander, as the NSA head, Gen Keith Alexander, is known, on whether his agency is indiscriminately hoovering up Americans’ phone records.

“I believe it is in the nation’s best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it, yes,” Alexander said.

When Alexander was asked a year ago if the Bluffdale centre would hold the data of Americans, he replied no: “We don’t hold data on US citizens,” adding that reports that they would “grab all the emails” were “grossly misreported”.

Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon told me ruefully that on Thursday, “Alexander put in a lockbox information that he’s told the public he doesn’t have. This is what we’re dealing with”.

“They think it’s okay to repeatedly say one thing to the public about domestic surveillance and do something completely different in private,” continued Wyden, who pressed Alexander on whether they’re collecting mobile phone location information.

The senator is sceptical that the NSA is open to reform, noting: “They’re just putting the same wine in a new bottle.”

Alexander recently wrote to his employees’ families to reassure them that any news reports that the agency had overreached – behaving “as more of a rogue element than a national treasure” – were “sensationalised”. Yet news broke this past week that the NSA inspector general admitted that there had been a dozen instances of staffers spying on love interests.

The Bluffdale sinkhole, which has quietly started sucking in mountains of data in the shadow of mountains, is the lockbox. This squat, ugly complex of four buildings is the creepy symbol of the NSA’s remorseless reach deep into our lives. I drove on to the Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams base to see the concrete data cloud up close.

‘Puzzle Palace’
Never mind puny terabytes. Or even exabytes, a handful of which can hold all knowledge from the dawn of man, according to estimates. James Bamford, the chronicler of the untrammelled powers of the “Puzzle Palace,” as he calls the NSA, wrote in Wired that the Utah tower of Babel might be able to store a yottabyte. That is equal to a septillion bytes or about 500 quintillion (500,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.

“It’s basically the NSA’s external hard drive,” Bamford told me, noting that our phone call was no doubt being logged by the Bluffdale computers. “It holds more private information than anyplace else on Earth.”

Bamford believes the NSA has transmogrified from an agency that “watched the Soviet Union to make sure it didn’t blow us up with nuclear weapons,” to one “that keeps collecting and collecting and collecting but doesn’t seem to do us any good”.

“They saw 9/11 and all these other terrorist attacks on CNN. They didn’t have a clue. The more electronic hay they stack on their haystack, the more difficult it is to find the needle.”

Bamford believes Americans need to get out of their crouch on terrorism and get alarmed that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, can deceive Congress without even a reprimand from the US president.

Still, Bamford and Wyden see signs of hope. “If you had told me six months ago that somebody would come up and ask me about the FISA court at the barbershop,” Wyden said, “I would have said fat chance.”

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