Welcome to Utah, the NSA’s desert home for eavesdropping on America

The NSA’s new $1.7bn facility in the heart of Mormon country has the potential to snoop on US citizens for decades to come

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Drive south down Camp Williams Road, a highway outside Salt Lake City, and your eye is drawn to the left. A gun-mounted helicopter and other military hardware marks the entrance of the Utah army national guard base. The ice-capped Rockies soar in the distance.

To the right there is little to see: featureless scrubland, a metal fence, some warehouses. A small exit – not marked on ordinary maps – takes you up a curving road. A yellow sign says this is military property closed to unauthorised personnel.

A spokesperson at NSA headquarters in Maryland did not welcome a Guardian request to visit its western outpost. “That is a secure facility. If you trespass on federal property security guards will be obliged to do their jobs.” An interview was out of the question.

Welcome to the Utah Data Center, a new home for the NSA’s exponentially expanding information trove. The $1.7bn facility, two years in the making, will soon host supercomputers to store gargantuan quantities of data from emails, phone calls, Google searches and other sources. Sited on an unused swath of the national guard base, by September it will employ around 200 technicians, span 1m sq ft and use 65 megawatts of power.

This week Utah roasted in near-record temperatures ideal for fires and thunderstorms, putting the state under a hazardous weather outlook advisory. The NSA could have done with a similar warning for the scorching criticism of its surveillance activities, a sudden reversal of scrutiny for the agency and its Utah complex.

NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah
A military no trespassing sign in front of Utah’s NSA Data Center. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Deep in Mormon country between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, nestled on the outskirts of Bluffdale (population 7,598), it was designed to be largely anonymous. Instead, after Guardian disclosures of data-mining programs involving millions of Americans, the Utah Data Center provokes an urgent question: what exactly will it do?

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If you want a clue as to whether there are problems at the Utah Data Center, talk to the man selling the massive spy building its water.

 

When operational, the Utah Data Center is expected to consume 1.7 million gallons a day in order to cool the people and technology inside. But so far, says Bluffdale City Manager Mark Reid, water consumption has been wildly inconsistent.

 

“They’ve gone from no usage to over their amounts that they planned to use,” Reid said on Tuesday.

“I don’t know what they’re doing there,” Reid said, “but they’re usage has been all over the board. “

 

The sporadic water use could point to the kinds of equipment failures reported this week in the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper said the Utah Data Center has been plagued by power surges that have ruined “hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery” and “delayed the center’s opening for a year.”

 

The newspaper reported there is not yet a consensus on how to fix the electrical failures. The Journal said there have been 10 failures — the first on August 2012 and most recently on Sept. 25.

 

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers office in Sacramento, Calif., has been the lead engineer on the project since construction. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman in that office, DeDe Cordell, released a written statement confirming much of The Journal report.

“During the testing and commissioning of the Utah Data Center, problems were discovered with certain parts of the electrical system,” the statement said. “Issues such as these can arise in any project, and are the reason the Corps tests and reviews every aspect of any project prior to releasing it to the customer.

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