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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.
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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.