The NSA doesn't like having its privacy invaded

A reporter tried to take pictures of a massive new government data center in Utah. Bad idea

Published March 4, 2013 11:00PM (EST)

                 (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

Kashmir Hill covers privacy issues for Forbes magazine. She does this job very well. She is, in fact, so dedicated to her beat that when she had a few hours to kill while visiting Utah she decided it would be fun to go take a look at the massive data center that the National Security Agency is building about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City.

She took some pictures, and got in some trouble. Not too much trouble -- some browbeating from NSA security officials, run-of-the-mill low-level intimidation. She ended up deleting a couple of her photographs -- and then  wrote a column that makes a really important point:

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.

Hill quotes a Wired magazine story on the data center from March:

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.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration -- an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

It's a building designed, in other words, to know everything there is to know about us. We, however, are not encouraged to learn anything about it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Kashmir Hill Nsa Privacy