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Utah lawmaker floats bill to cut off NSA data centre's water supply

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Utah lawmaker floats bill to cut off NSA data centre’s water supply


The National Security Agency, already under siege in Washington, faces a fresh attempt to curtail its activities from a Utah legislator who wants to cut off the surveillance agency’s water supply. 

Marc Roberts, a first-term Republican lawmaker in the Beehive State, plans this week to begin a quixotic quest to check government surveillance starting at a local level. He will introduce a bill that would prevent anyone from supplying water to the $1bn-plus data center the NSA is constructing in his state at Bluffdale.

The bill is about telling the federal government “if you want to spy on the whole world and American citizens, great, but we’re not going to help you,” Roberts told the Guardian.

Supporters of the bill freely admit they’re at a disadvantage. Roberts is still talking with colleagues to find co-sponsors. His activist allies expect a steep, uphill struggle against the NSA’s supporters in conservative Utah, as well as business groups whom Roberts expects will argue that the data center will create jobs and bolster the local economy.

It will be a “pretty good fight”, said Mike Maharrey of the Tenth Amendment Center, whose campaign to shut off the spigot at the data center had gained more media attention in recent weeks than traction until Roberts embraced it.

The impending bill also highlights a diffusion of protest against the NSA more than eight months after whistleblower Edward Snowden began revealing the breadth of US and allied surveillance in the Guardian, the Washington Post and other news outlets. 

In addition to a congressional effort to end bulk collection and promised curtailments unilaterally offered by President Barack Obama, Utah is the 13th state legislature to consider sanctions on the federal government’s second largest spy agency. The hashtag favored by local activists: #‎NullifyNSA.

“Ultimately, all three branches of the federal government have grown complicit in a broad-scale assault on the fundamental rights of we, the American people, and the only place we have left to go are the states,” said Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, an activist group working with the Tenth Amendment Center as part of what they call the OffNow coalition.

The logic of the Utah campaign is straightforward. Running the data center requires a lot of water – some 1.7m gallons daily, the activists estimate – to cool the anticipated 100,000 square feet of powerful computers and support equipment the NSA needs for storing a tremendous amount of data. The Wall Street Journal estimated this to be in the range of exabytes or even zettabytes (an exabyte is a billion gigabytes.)

Making it illegal to supply the water will cripple the data center, already beset with electrical problems, before it opens and complicate the NSA’s plans for expanding its storage capacity. For an agency that hoovers up a wide swath of the data communicated across the internet, not to mention the phone records of Americans that it can store for up to five years, it’s a problem. 

But Utah is only the latest of about a dozen states to consider measures designed to restrict the NSA’s activities. 

In the NSA’s home state of Maryland, eight lawmakers are backing a bill to stymie the provision of water and electricity to the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters. A similar measure, based off an initiative Maherrey’s organization calls the 4th Amendment Protection Act, has been introduced in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi, Washington state and Vermont. 

“The provision of resources like water and electricity is a no-brainer in a state’s plenary authority,” said Buttar.

Four other states – Kansas, New Hampshire, Alaska and Missouri – are considering a related measure to prevent the sharing of NSA-derived data without a warrant. 

The campaign faces unfavorable odds. The 4th Amendment Protection Act in Mississippi was referred to the state senate rules committee on 20 January, where it died on 4 February. 

“I know it’s not going to pass in every state,” Maharrey said. But in Utah particularly, “we’re going to push it as hard as we can.”

Roberts, a former basketball player at Utah’s Brigham Young University, is a logical choice to push hard. His website prominently quotes Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” (“… it was the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused man to make laws in the first place”) cites the Tenth Amendment’s emphasis on the “few and defined powers” available to the federal government. Roberts recently introduced a bill restricting law enforcement’s leeway to forcibly enter Utahns’ homes when conducting searches.

“It goes back to federalism [and] the Tenth Amendment principle,” Roberts said.

“When the federal government gets too big and gets out of control, the states have to step up, and that’s what we’re doing now: join[ing] together to push back,” he said.



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