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Special Coverage Series

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Kevin Fogarty

NSA Caught Unawares By Data Center Tax

The National Security Agency, which is building a massive information-gathering data center in Utah, was caught by surprise on a tax bill that might have added millions to its costs.

The whole purpose of an organization like the National Security Agency (NSA) is to know things far enough ahead of time that its human nodes are never surprised. Certainly that's a big part of the reason the agency has been building a heavily fortified, $2 billion data center on the thinly populated, dry mountain plain just south of Salt Lake City.

However, it appears the NSA may have been surprised by a tax on the electricity the data center is expected to consume. This year the Utah State Legislature added a 6% tax to electricity coming from Rocky Mountain Power. The NSA data center is one of the facilities whose power costs could be affected, according to a story in the Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune estimated the tax bill at about $2.4 million dollars.

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An attorney for the state told the Tribune the NSA had been informed about the upcoming tax on power, but the NSA apparently didn't get the message. The bill was signed into law on April 1. The NSA complained on April 26, in the form of an e-mail from Harvey Davis, the NSA's director of installations and logistics, to Utah Governor Gary Herbert. The Tribune obtained the email via an open-records law request.

"The long and short of it is," Davis said in a second email, "long-term stability in the utility rates was a major factor in Utah being selected as our site for our $1.5 billion construction at Camp Williams." Camp Williams is the Utah National Guard facility on which the data center is being built.

State officials who helped sell the NSA on the idea of putting its giant data center in the Salt Lake desert told the Tribune they didn't know about the bill adding the power tax, or how it would affect the NSA facility.

The NSA Utah Data Center--which is visible by satellite and even street view on Google Maps, though the street-view photos are out of date--is designed to ingest massive volumes of electronic and digital communications.

According to a 2012 Wired story about the project, the data center is designed to collect emails, cell-phone calls, the personal and legal data trails of individuals, as well as financial information, stock trades and other official communications. It will also contain code-breaking computers and staff.

The Wired story notes the data center will devote about 100,000 square feet to servers alone--25,000 sq. ft. in each of four separate server rooms. Wired estimates the center will pull an average of 65 megawatts of power to keep all that hardware running, but that expansions may raise the center's power use as high as 200 megawatts within a couple of years, as adjunct buildings are completed and come online. That's a lot of electricity to tax.

Of course, while the NSA may have been surprised by the tax, it has taken steps to rectify the situation. According to the latest report from the Tribune, the NSA and Utah's governor are "confident" the NSA can get out of paying.



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