NSA officials have said the agency chose the Bluffdale location over 37 others because electricity is cheaper here, and land more easily available. The center will constantly use 65 megawatts of power — enough to power 33,000 houses.
The secrecy and security surrounding the facility are necessary because the center will store classified information, and the code-breaking and spying activities of its staff are also highly classified and a target for foreign spies, said a former U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the program publicly.
The official said the Salt Lake City area is ideal because of a high concentration of Mormons who have served overseas missions and learned foreign languages. The NSA relies on non-English speakers to translate communications from around the world, and Utah provides a pool of employees that meets this need, said the official.
There is another facility in Utah where the NSA has analysts who translate intercepted communications, but there will be no such analysts at the Bluffdale center, the agency said. Most of the 150 to 200 workers instead will be technicians charged with keeping the power on and the computers chilled and working.
George said the agency probably doesn't need to be as hyper-secretive as it is but said such precautions are meant to avoid letting slip any insight that could tip off terrorist organizations and those who may wish harm upon the United States.
"It's just not in your best interest to be talking about what you are doing," he said.
It's that air of uncertainty that has unnerved residents who live and work near the facility, located on the Camp Williams National Guard base. Some worry the center could become a target of terrorists if it holds so much valuable information.
"Say they were collecting data somebody didn't want, say a terrorist," said Shannon Neilson, a convenience store manager whose house is just miles from the center. "What if that's a target for a plane hitting that, destroying everything?"
Late last month, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the center to mark work being finished on the exterior. The celebration, however, was closed to the public — an exclusive, invitation-only gathering that barred even the mayor of Bluffdale. The NSA also rejected a request by city officials to take a group of visiting Utah mayors on a bus tour of the outside of the facility. The agency said all tours — even of the exterior — are prohibited.
At the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, educators are creating a certificate program that they hope will produce students ready to work at big data centers such as the Bluffdale facility. The NSA helped reviewed the curriculum, offering suggestions, and plans to offer internships to students, said Valerio Pascucci, director of the Center for Extreme Data, Management, Analysis and Visualization.
The program is designed primarily for undergraduate students studying mechanical or electrical engineering and computer science. So far, the Utah Data Center has yet to post jobs, Valerio said. "We are building a new expertise that obviously is going to be in growing demand in the future," he said.
Bluffdale City Manager Mark Reid said he hopes the NSA center serves as a magnet for other, privately run data centers to the area. Unlike the NSA facility, those would be required to pay property taxes. Reid will travel to a data center conference in Washington, D.C., this month to promote Utah's cheap power and ideal workforce. But if attendees ask about the new NSA facility, he'll be short on answers.
"I know very little," Reid said. "We just deliver the water."
Associated Press Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed from Washington, D.C.
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