I'm currently reading James Bamford's definitive history of the NSA, Body of Secrets, because I find that scaring the shit out of myself right before bed helps me sleep better. Amid the book's disheartening narrative of our country's endlessly-expanding surveillance apparatus and how the government has found new and exciting ways to abuse it, I learned about something amazing: The United States National Radio Quiet Zone, a massive plot of land where wi-fi and cell phones are banned, that is nonetheless a hotbed of NSA eavesdropping.
How is the NSA related to the Quiet Zone? In the late 50s, the Naval Research Laboratory, flush with the Inspector Gadget lunacy of Cold War spygames, came up with the idea to capture Soviet communications after they had radiated from earth and bounced off the moon. For this, they decided to build an enormous eavesdropping satellite dish nestled in the hills of Sugar Grove, West Virginia. It was to be, Bamford writes, "The largest movable structure ever built: 30,000 tons of steel welded into the shape of a cereal bowl 66 stories tall and 600 feet in diameter." Bamford explains Sugar Grove was the perfect place to spy on faint Commie signals because it is smack in the middle of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone.
With some Googling, I learned the Quiet Zone is a magical place: It is a 13,000 square mile square of land (the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, says Wired) spanning West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland where all electromagnetic radiation is severely limited or banned. The Quiet Zone was set up in 1958 by the FCC to protect massive radio telescopes in the area that probe the cosmos by picking up the faintest radiation from distant galaxies and stars. Astronomers couldn't have microwaves and FM radios mucking up the signal.
In modern terms that means there's no wi-fi, no cell phones, and no radio in the Quiet Zone. And it turns out the USNRQZ has been a perennial fascination with journalists, chasing the narrative of refuge from civilization's constant digital blathering. How can you resist something called The Quiet Zone? A 2002 Wired story follows the efforts of the guy in charge of beating back the ever-encroaching electromagnetic radiation in the Quiet Zone. More recently, so-called 'wi-fi refugees' have settled in the area. Sufferers of a maybe-made-up disease Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome (EHS) have been moving to Sugar Grove and other towns in the Quiet Zone, claiming the this has cured them after years of uneasy sleep and mysterious rashes sparked by an allergic reaction to electromagnetic radiation. Check out this in-depth Slate piece about EHS sufferers.
The massive moonbounce antenna was never built as planned, but Sugar Grove ended up hosting an important NSA listening post after all. In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy built a listening post in Sugar Grove, from which the NSA has conducted surveillance ever since. Sugar Grove Station is part of the ECHELON system, a multi-national spying conglomerate which caused a scandal when it was revealed in 1988, years before Snowden. According to Bamford, the listening post at Sugar Grove "intercepts all international communications entering the United States." Its antennas pluck airborne communication from the sky, mostly from telecommunications satellite traffic. Sugar Grove Station is slated to shut down in 2016, according to national security journalist Matthew Zaid, probably because most communication these days flow through fiberoptic cables and, as Snowden showed, the NSA's XKEYSCORE program has got that covered. In the meantime, you can spy on Sugar Grove's antennae on Google Maps, here.
I love the Quiet Zone. It's one of those places where geography and accident come together to embody all the weird contradictions of America. The Quiet Zone, created by the government in the name of technological progress, has now become a refuge for neo-luddites overwhelmed by technological progress. And while the Sugar Grove listening post has been at the cutting edge of spying on cell phones across the world, the lack of cell service in the Quiet Zone means it's useless against any terrorists living right down the street. Then there's the irony that even as the entire internet is embroiled in anti-NSA frevor, West Virginia's congressional delegation responded to news of the Sugar Grove listening post's deactivation by trying to convince the NSA to continue spying in their backyard, according to Zaid.
The Quiet Zone occupies a sweet spot in terms of the surveillance state: Within eyesight, but out of earshot. As an added bonus, I bet they've never heard of cronuts down there.