“Behind a fence topped with razor wire just off U.S. Highway 71 is a bunker of a building that Wal-Mart considers so secret that it won't even let the county assessor inside without a nondisclosure agreement,” writes Max McCoy for the Joplin Globe.
In Jane, Missouri, a once quiet hillbilly town of 22,000, a 133,000-square-foot building has been innocuously tucked behind the construction of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, which happens to be a convenient 15 miles from the store’s corporate headquarters across the state line in Bentonville, Arkansas.
McCoy says, “There is nothing about the building to give even a hint that Wal-Mart owns it.” Reading on, we find that this thing is something of a cross between an old Cold War dugout resurfaced for air, the secret space architecture of the NSA’s network of data mining enclaves, and, perhaps, a new precedent in the camouflage deployment of ex-urban corporate fortress building. Anyway…
“Despite the glimpses through the fence of manicured grass and carefully placed trees, the overall impression is that this is a secure site that could withstand just about anything.”
And he’s probably right.
“Earth is packed against the sides. The green roof (see Bird's Eye) - meant, perhaps, to blend into the surrounding Ozarks hills - bristles with dish antennas. On one of the heavy steel gates at the guardhouse is a notice that visitors must use the intercom for assistance.
When Wal-Mart constructed its primary data center at corporate headquarters in 1989, it wasn't much of a secret: It was the largest poured concrete structure in Arkansas at the time.”
But, the Bentonville data center is built on bedrock and has been designed to withstand most natural and man-made disasters. The biggest danger, however, according to the article, is the area's frequently violent thunderstorms. “[It] was designed with backup generators, fuel on site, and room and board for a skeleton crew in the event an emergency required an extended stay.”
Bill Ferguson, a founder of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in Memphis, Tenn, said his firm learned to design data centers by working with FedEx, which also is based in Memphis, and that the 1989 Wal-Mart data center was built “so that it could communicate via any means available - including copper wire, fiber optics and satellites.” And so, with all of this, as you might expect, comes a healthy dose of speculation as to just what this near-clandestine “data center” is being used for, exactly.
According to a 2004 New York Times article, Wal-Mart had enough storage capacity to contain twice the amount of all the data available on the Internet; or, roughly 460 terabytes of information.
From the article, “With 3,600 stores in the United States and roughly 100 million customers walking through the doors each week, Wal-Mart has access to information about a broad slice of America - from individual Social Security and driver's license numbers to geographic proclivities for Mallomars, or lipsticks, or jugs of antifreeze.”
[Image: Thomas Holmes, via Magical Urbanism.]
Adding to that, McCoy mentions how Wal-Mart allegedly solicited a video surveillance contractor to develop a system of “ways they could link video footage with customers paying for their purchases” that could be used to biometrically data track them, which would require an unprecedented amount of storage in order to create the kind of customer database they were seeking. Perhaps this hulking site was developed for such a purpose: the surveillance sublime of Wal-Mart consumerism?
Regardless, call it a data center or a new age corporate bunker, or even Wal-Mart’s own brand of ‘military urbanism’, whatever the building’s true purposes are still remain a mystery. Is Wal-Mart building a huge CCTV database of all its customers nationwide, if so, for what purpose exactly? Could there be any secret collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security? What’s so important that this building needs to be built to withstand today’s threat of colossal terrorism? Data is data, but can Wal-Mart really be trusted with your social security numbers, your buying habits, or an entire video dossier of your Wal-Mart-relative whereabouts?
(Thanks to Trevor for shooting this one my way!)