2013 03 04 FRB Surprise Visitors Are Unwelcome At The NSA’s Unfinished Utah Spy Center (Especially When They Take Photos) – Forbes
Surprise Visitors Are Unwelcome At The NSA’s Unfinished Utah Spy Center (Especially When They Take Photos)
Officers said the sign was jokingly programmed this way by a construction worker
Most people who visit Salt Lake City in the winter months are excited about taking advantage of the area’s storied slopes. While skiing was on my itinerary last week, I was more excited about an offbeat tourism opportunity in the area: I wanted to check out the construction site for “the country’s biggest spy center.”
An electrifying piece about domestic surveillance by national security writer James Bamford that appeared in Wired last year read like a travel brochure to me:
In the little town of Bluffdale, Big Love and Big Brother have become uneasy neighbors. Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”
My outing to the facility last Thursday was an eventful one. I can confirm that the National Security Agency’s site is still under construction. It was surprisingly easy to drive up and circle its parking lot. But if you take photos while there, it is — much like Hotel California – very hard to leave.
When the University of Utah professor who invited me to Salt Lake City to talk to his students asked how I wanted to spend three hours of downtime Thursday afternoon, the super-secret spy center was at the top of my list. The professor, Randy Dryer, was dubious about the value of visiting the construction site, assuming there would be a huge fence that would prohibit us from getting close or seeing anything significant. That turned out not to be the case.
View from the highway. There’s a similar bird’s eye view available on Google Earth.
We drove about 30 minutes south of downtown Salt Lake City to an area described to me as “out in the desert.” As we got close, I could see from the highway four grey mortared buildings that will soon be holding massive amounts of the world’s data. They appeared half-finished. I snapped some photos with my iPad (which, yes, does make me feel like a ridiculous person).
Then we came to a paved turn-off on the right that led directly to the facility. Driving up the road, we came to a sign emblazoned with the seals of the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; it was topped with a digital banner that proudly declared in flashing lights, “Look This… Sign Works!!!!” Behind the sign was a building that looked like a gas pumping station, minus the pumps. We took a right into a parking lot, where I snapped photos of the majestic view of the mountains that NSA data workers will have, another building that looked almost like a visitor’s center (it is #1 — a $9.7 million Visitor Control Center — in this diagram from Wired), and closer views of the data center and the unimposing, barbed-wire-topped fence that surrounded it. That seemed to be the end of the tour. I expressed surprise to Randy Dryer that no one had come out to see why we were slowly driving through the lot.
Two minutes later as we circled back to the flashing sign to take a few more photos, including one of a green sign with an arrow that read, “Rejection Lane,” a uniformed but baby-faced officer with NSA and “K9 unit” badges came out and walked up to the car.
Where we stopped for an hour to ‘engage in a chat’
“Were you taking photos?” he asked. I said that I was. He responded, “You’re going to need to delete those.”
I explained that I was a journalist and that I preferred not to. He insisted, saying we were on restricted federal property and that taking photos there was illegal. Luckily for me, Randy Dryer is not just a university professor but a practicing and long-experienced media lawyer. He explained to the officer who we were, why we were there and that we hadn’t realized we were on restricted property. The officer, who carried a gun and a portable radio, began writing everything we said down in a little green notebook. When the officer insisted again that the photos be deleted, Dryer asked if we could talk to his supervisor.
At this point another uniformed officer pulled up behind us. He came up to the car and went essentially through the same question-asking routine while the first officer, who took our driver’s licenses, walked away from the car to call his supervisor. Officer #2, who seemed slightly older than the first but who also carried a little green notebook to record what we had to say, told us he would like for me to delete the photos, and mentioned that it would be easier if we did and that we could be charged with a crime for trespassing and for taking the photos.
Honestly, I was starting to feel pretty nervous at this point but also painfully aware of the irony of the situation. They didn’t want me to capture information about a facility that will soon be harvesting and storing massive amounts of information about American citizens, potentially including many photos they’ve privately sent.
I also remembered that I’d recently turned the passcode off on my iPad so it wouldn’t lock up on me during a presentation to political science students about “privacy watchdogs;” I suddenly had a strong urge to turn it back on.
View from the parking lot
We sat there for about 30 minutes with the car window down and the cold Utah air making its way inside. As we waited for “the supervisor,” we began chatting with the NSA officers. They asked for more information about us, including whether we had guns in the car. (This wouldn’t be hugely surprising in the state of Utah, but we did not.) I confessed that the photos I had weren’t terribly revealing. “You can see the facility from the highway,” I argued. One of the officers grimaced at that and suggested that this has occurred to him and he “didn’t think they built it in the best spot.”
“We didn’t see any signs on our way in,” said Dryer. “They must be tiny.”
“Yeah, that road recently opened,” said Officer #1. “I was just thinking the other day as I was driving in that those signs are too small.”
I said that I expected the construction to be farther along at this point, given that the center is due to be completed in seven months. They said this is “just the half I can see.” Gesturing at the rather puny looking fence, I told them it didn’t seem very high-security.
“Oh it’s stronger than it looks,” replied Officer #2. “It would stop a tractor trailer.”
“Yeah, but too bad it’s not higher and not see-through,” added Officer #1.