The National Security Agency redacted data on water usage at its Utah Data Center, prompting questions about what, exactly, the NSA is doing in the Beehive State.
A water war is brewing in Utah, the second-driest state in the Union. In May last year, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle requested records relating to the newly-built data center in Bluffdale. In the response he received several months later, the water usage data had been redacted.
This would likely not warrant additional scrutiny, except for the fact that the data center — the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, or the Utah Data Center — is owned and operated by the National Security Agency.
Carlisle had specifically requested a copy of Bluffdale’s agreement to provide water to the Utah Data Center as well as records of water usage at the facility. In a letter to the Utah State Records Committee, the NSA argued that the information requested under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act constituted a violation of national security.
“By computing the water usage rate, one could ultimately determine the computing power and capabilities of the Utah Data Center,” wrote David Sherman, the NSA’s associate director for policy and records. “Armed with this information, one could then deduce how much intelligence NSA is collecting and maintaining.”
Details on the construction of the data center have been announced publicly, such as the news that the center had been plagued with electrical issues, delaying its launch. But details about the center’s operations, including its specific mission, remain classified.
The issue of the data center’s water usage has grown to be a contentious one. One organization, the anti-government Tenth Amendment Center, has launched a campaign for Utah to cut off the data center’s water supply. State Rep. Marc Roberts has suggested that he will introduce similar legislation.
The NSA uses the water to cool the massive computer banks — either through directly misting the air of its computer centers or by using the water to cool heatsinks. While early planning documents obtained by the Tribune show that the center was expected to use 1.2 million gallons of water per day — a revision from the originally planned 1.7 million gallons — the size of the computer network can not be inferred from the amount of coolant it uses, especially if the type of coolant system is also not known.
Estimates of the size and scope of the data center vary wildly, depending on who one asks. In a July 2013 article, Forbes estimated that the working part of the data center is about 200,000 square feet, or roughly the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and holds between 3 and 12 exabytes.
An exabyte is a measure of computer storage equal to 1,024 petabytes, 1,048,576 terabytes or 1,073,741,824 gigabytes — roughly the equivalent of 245,707,511 single-layer DVDs. To put this into perspective, it is estimated that it would take 400 terabytes to store all of the books written in one particular language. The Utah Data Center is large enough, based on Forbes’ projections, to store every book ever written in every Indo-European language and still have some space leftover.
Forbes’ estimate contrasts previous reports that had the data center’s capacity entering into the yottabytes range (a yottabyte is 1,048,576 exabytes).
However, with global IP data expected to pass 83.8 exabytes per month in 2015, according to Cisco, the notion that the data center is a mass repository for the world’s electronic communications seems unlikely.
Yet, with the NSA fighting to keep even mundane details of the data center cloaked in mystery, the environment for speculation and conjecture about what the $1.5 billion data hub actually does will continue to draw questions, especially in light of recent revelations concerning the NSA’s use of illegal surveillance.