Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm The Utah Data Center, 26 miles south of Salt Lake City, will begin operations in September. Though the NSA director has said it won't hold data on U.S. citizens, privacy advocates worry about the agency's expanding capabilities.
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Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm

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Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm

Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The controversy over electronic data collection at the National Security Agency comes as the NSA is putting the finishing touches on its biggest data collection center yet. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, this data farm, costing more than $1 billion, sits on a National Guard base south of Salt Lake City.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The complex of buildings is finished and at 1.5 million square feet, it's five times bigger than the Ikea down the road. It's top secret so we can't get any closer than this four-lane highway. This is a location that is quintessential for Utah. Mountains rise behind this dusty, desert foothill. There's even a compound of polygamists nearby.

Inside the NSA's Utah Data Center, workers are now planting 100,000 square feet of computers and sometime in September the data harvest begins.

HARVEY DAVIS: This is just part of a big network, OK. And the data is analyzed across that network.

BERKES: Which means, as NSA installation director Harvey Davis, the place will employ about 100 technicians and no intelligence analysts.

DAVIS: When an analyst sits in front of their computer and does their work, they don't particularly care from whence the data came, OK. And as long as the data finds its way into the network, people who do the work, analytic work and data do not have to be, geographically, in the same place.

BERKES: So it's the computers that will do the work here in Utah and boy will they be busy consuming 65 megawatts of power, enough for 65,000 homes. They'll get so hot, they need a million and a half gallons of water a day to stay cool. After all, they'll be able to process enough emails, phone calls, text messages and other data to take up five zettabytes of storage. Five zettabytes would fill more than a trillion DVDs.

That's an estimate from William Binney, a former NSA technical director.

WILLIAM BINNEY: They must have plenty of space with five zettabytes to store, you know, at least something on the order of 100 years worth of the worldwide communications, phones and emails and stuff like that, and then have plenty of space left over to do any kind of parallel processing to try to break codes.

BERKES: The NSA says the Data Center capacity is classified information. The Agency's Harvey Davis would only say this about the data it gathers.

DAVIS: The NSA's focus is on foreign intelligence and foreign intelligence that ride over the networks is what we're talking about.

BERKES: Last summer, General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, was asked this during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will the Utah Data Center hold the data of American citizens?

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: No. While I can't go into all the details of the Utah Data Center, we don't hold data on U.S. citizens.

BERKES: But given the revelations of the past week about NSA's data gathering, privacy activists are concerned about the agency's new data farm here in Utah. Chris Soghoian focuses on technology privacy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

CHRIS SOGHOIAN: We don't know everything that the NSA is doing or, in fact, most of what the NSA is doing, but there is almost certainly surveillance that they would like to do and have not been able to do because they didn't have the storage or computing resources to perform the searches. And this will give them the ability to do more searches through more innocent people's information.

BERKES: Last month, the National Security Agency broke ground for another data farm at agency headquarters at Fort Mead, Maryland. It will be two-thirds the size of the new data center here in Utah. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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