A fortified skyscraper to house telecommunications hub, shield NSA spying

AT&T owns a unique skyscraper in Manhattan that may also serve as a key node in the government’s snooping into phone calls:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.

The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”…

It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Telecommunications equipment and other vital infrastructure has to go somewhere in major cities. It is often covered up in a variety of ways. But, a 500+ foot building is difficult to disguise completely.
  2. Americans tend not to spend much time thinking about how many features of modern life happen. That such a large building is needed to house a “large international ‘gateway switch'” hints at what is needed behind the scenes when people use a phone to dial people outside the country.
  3. The article may be suggesting that the architecture of the building matches its sinister use. This sounds like post hoc theorizing. When construction started in 1969, the architecture fit what was needed: a protected building. I don’t know if it is possible to make such structures more beautiful or appealing. On the other hand, perhaps some can see past the functional approach used in the design of many infrastructure housings and admire such particular designs. Chic infrastructure?

A brief history of the rise of AT&T

The young might only think of AT&T as one of the major cell phone carriers. But this ignores AT&T’s long and important history that includes many innovations and cycles the company has gone through:

But AT&T didn’t just conquer the 20th-century via clever marketing, mergers, and strategic deals with the government. In an era profoundly distrustful of corporations, it justified its expansion as a bid to offer “universal service” to the country. “One policy, one system, universal service,” became AT&T’s motto. Rather than breaking up the system, the government would regulate it as a “natural monopoly.”…

For the next 50 years, AT&T would consistently repeat the same cycle to avoid being broken up by the government—innovate, acquire, strategically retreat, then move forward again with a redefined mission. When the public reacted badly to the network’s attempt to take over broadcast radio, AT&T backed off in exchange for a monopoly on wireline service between radio stations. When the government again raised the spectre of a breakup after the Second World War, AT&T agreed to get out of the computer software business, leasing innovations like the Unix operating system to universities for a nominal fee.

Interesting. The research and development arm of this company produced a number of important technological breakthroughs that helped the United States rise to the top of the world heap in the mid 1950s. The company may be once again on the verge of a monopoly but it is hard to refute, to paraphrase a well-known saying, that “what has been good for AT&T has been good for America.”