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[ISN] Surprise Visitors Are Unwelcome At The NSA's Unfinished Utah Spy Center (Especially When They Take Photos)


By Kashmir Hill
Forbes Staff

Most people who visit Salt Lake City in the winter months are excited about taking advantage of the areaâs 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 âthe countryâs biggest spy center.â

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 worldâs 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 trailsâparking receipts, travel
 itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital âpocket litter.â

My outing to the facility last Thursday was an eventful one. I can confirm that the National Security Agencyâs 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 â much like Hotel California â 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.


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