If you think the National Security Agency (NSA) isn’t interested in your information, you should take a road trip out to see the massive, nondescript, concrete buildings they operate in the sleepy town of Bluffdale, Utah.
Called the Utah or NSA Data Center, it may be one of the best representations for what the NSA considers to be its mission for the future: bulk online data collection. Although the NSA turned down our request to tour the facility with our cameras, we were able to talk to Pete Ashdown of the ISP provider XMission, who toured the facility as it was being built in 2012.
"The NSA Data Center is essentially server space, where they have large rooms with racks of servers," says Ashdown, who toured the buildings as a part of Utah Data Center Consortium, a group of public and private stakeholders interested in Utah’s data center industry.
At first Ashdown was excited to see what the NSA was building, but found out they were pretty tight lipped about details.
"The questions they would answer were very banal. But, we were able to calculate the capacity by counting the generators. Each of those generators was a two megawatt generator and they had over thirty of them," said Ashdown. "I think a megawatt can service 1,000 homes."
When Ashdown left the facility, he began to digest what he saw recalling what former AT&T engineer and NSA whistleblower Mark Klein revealed in 2004: An NSA intercept room at the AT&T headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area.
"All the data flowing through AT&T at the time was going in and nobody knew what was going on inside," said Ashdown, who also says he was told the Utah Data Center is not connected to the internet all all.
"I started to realize that it is just a data collection point. That they are collecting and storing as much data off the internet and telephone networks that they can. And they think that if you ask for a warrant later to look at the data that’s okay," said Ashdown.
Thanks to the USA Freedom Act, in November 2015, the NSA lost the ability to directly hold information about the phone calls of millions of U.S. citizens. While the change is significant, the NSA can still collect and store your communication from the internet and social media.
"If you trust the government is going to do the right thing I think you’re alone in that respect," said Ashdown.