Deep inside the Swiss Alps, a former nuclear bunker is now the ultimate hiding place for the world’s most sensitive secrets. Wired gains access to the server farm designed to survive a full-scale military attack.
The cockpit of Christoph Oschwald’s silver Audi A8 is preternaturally quiet as he steers through the Swiss countryside towards our destination. Wired has been instructed not to disclose its exact whereabouts. It’s late June, “the longest day of the year”, Oschwald notes. It should be 25°C outside. Instead, it’s an unseasonably chilly 12°C, and the tiny village of Saanen, in the canton of Bern, sits beneath a steel-grey sky that lends an ominous air to what might otherwise resemble an Alpenland panorama on a souvenir chocolate bar.
The green valley that cradles Saanen and the near by town of Gstaad in the Bernese highlands plays host, according to local newspaper Der Bund, to the highest concentration of billionaires in the world, their chalets creeping up the piney slopes. But it’s also home to something else — a place that you won’t find on any of the tourist maps. For the past 18 years, Oschwald, 53, a retired Swiss paratrooper turned contractor, and his business partner, an engineer named Hanspeter Baumann, 55, have committed thousands of hours and millions of francs to realising their vision — the place we’re headed to today.
We pass a Tissot boutique abutting a tractor dealership before the road dives into dense forest and follows a stream. Finally we arrive at our destination. At first, it appears to be nothing more than a timber operation, with lorries moving wooden payloads around a gravelly clearing. But then we see them: three guards clad in black uniforms, berets askew, pacing at the base of an enormous mountain. The Alpine foliage above the sentry ends abruptly at a bare rock face painted in fading camo. And carved into the side of the mountain is our destination: a small, weather-beaten metal door. Once the entrance to a vast nuclear bunker built by the Swiss military at the height of the Cold War in the mid-60s, it is now a portal into what its creators claim to be the most secure and secretive storehouse for digital information in the world: the place Oschwald has christened Swiss Fort Knox.
“Sixteen years ago, nobody took us seriously,” Oschwald says. “They said to us, ‘Storing data under a mountain? Why?’” In the cheerier geopolitical climate of the 90s, it was decidedly easier to scoff at the eccentric Swiss entrepreneur, with his slicked-back hair and blinding white smile, as he extolled the data-security benefits of his decommissioned bunker. But today — with terrorism, environmental disasters and financial meltdown on the global agenda — some of the biggest players in technology and finance are buying into the facility’s promise. Oschwald can tick off blue-chip companies such as Cisco Systems, Novartis, UBS and Deutsche Bank among his clients.
The guards stroll over to greet their boss, who is 6’ 2’’ and wears a black raincoat and a dark-blue Italian suit. As he prepares to escort Wired inside, he explains how nearly two decades of work and an investment of more than 40 million Swiss francs (£25 million) transformed a decaying bunker into a fortified data repository. Swiss Fort Knox has a laundry list of features straight out of a film script. There are five security zones, a dedicated power supply, a cooling system that pumps glacier water from an underground lake, military-grade air filters that siphon atomic, biological and chemical impurities from the air, an emergency hotel, several months’ food, a conference room, and security, including face-recognition surveillance software, bulletproof plastics and vault doors courtesy of the Swiss banking industry. It is also, thanks to its original use, designed to be impervious to nuclear attack.
“We had a four-star US general who was partly responsible for the atomic-weapons programme come here,” Oschwald says as the guards look on, “and he said, ‘In America, we have a lot of space and a lot of soldiers. But I have visited a lot of sites and this is something… very special.’” As Oschwald speaks, a Subaru pulls up and a stocky man in sunglasses exits the car carrying a light-blue lockbox. He says a few words to one of the guards, hands over the goods and speeds away. Oschwald seems unfazed by the spectacle. He’s accustomed to nervy clients who still prefer physical data transfer to the virtual.
“Normally we have courier services bringing those boxes once a day,” Oschwald says. But this delivery was special. “The point is, data is more valuable than money — because money is replaceable, data is not. What we need is a bank for data, and this is where the Swiss tradition is. The material value of that blue box is maybe a thousand bucks. But the value of the information? This could be billions.”
Last year, Oschwald received a phone call from a software professor at the University of Vienna named Andreas Rauber. He wanted to know if Oschwald would store a sealed metal container within which were the tools to decipher every major file format then in existence — a kind of Rosetta Stone for the digital age.
The honour, Oschwald responded, would be his. And so it was that last May, an impenetrable subterranean fortress carved into the side of a Swiss mountain became the home of the world’s first digital genome.
Bits rot. It’s a difficult thing to accept about the seemingly intransigent, but those ones and zeros still rely on physical objects — CDs, DVDs, microchips, hard drives, memory cards — to hold them steady. And this is the realm of chaos. Over time, electrons rearrange themselves, polarities reverse, heat jostles, UV rays fry. In 2001, a geologist from the Museum of Natural History in Madrid discovered a new form of fungus that eats compact discs, rendering them unplayable. Far-fetched as it may sound, forces of nature ravage our digital information, the way a jungle reclaims ancient cities. What are worse, files don’t decay the way written documents and photographs do. One misplaced bit in a .jpg file and the whole image could fall apart. Assume, for a moment, that you desperately needed to access a file you created 15 years ago. Where will you insert that floppy? Where will you find a copy of WordPerfect 6.1? And what are you going to save it on to this time?
Scale this hopeless scenario up to several decades’ worth of digital information, and you’ll have some sense of why a consortium of 16 technology companies, national archives, and research universities across Europe — IBM Netherlands, the University of Cologne and the Swiss Federal Archives among them — have dedicated four years and more than €15 million to an initiative known as the Planets (Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services) project. Planets is co-ordinated by the British Library’s head of digital library technology, Adam Farquhar, and its mission statement is “to enable long-term preservation of digital content, increasing Europe’s ability to ensure access in perpetuity to its digital information.” It’s a mission it takes very seriously.
On a bright June afternoon at the British Library’s sprawling Boston Spa campus in rural Yorkshire, the hillsides are exploding with yellow rapeseed blossoms. Farquhar, 49, bespectacled with a big black beard and an indomitable demeanour, meets wired in his sunlit office to talk about the birth of the digital genome. Six years ago, he came to the library to put together a preservation team that would look after the digital collection for the foreseeable future. But the challenges of obsolescence and unreadability became immediately apparent — and for that matter had never really been addressed before. “Preserving the data was one thing,” says Farquhar, “but how could we preserve it in such a way that it’s accessible and meaningful in the future?” So he started a project with the National Archives, research universities and tech giants such as Microsoft and IBM, to brainstorm a solution. The Planets research project was born.
“Andreas Rauber at the University of Vienna had the idea to do this as a time capsule,” he recalls. Farquhar loved the idea, and so he and his team embarked on the long journey of configuring its contents. The time capsule, they decided, would consist of five core “source objects”: the Planets brochure in PDF, a few lines of Java Code, parts of the Planets homepage in HTML, a JPEG picture of the Planets all-staff meeting, and a short MOV video. It also contains a full menu of storage media old and new: punch cards, microfilm, floppy discs, audio tapes, CDs, DVDs, USB and Blu-ray.
With posterity in mind, Farquhar’s team initially approached the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Arctic archipelago, 1,300km from the North Pole, a worst-case-scenario storehouse for thousands of cultivated botanical strains from around the world. “We thought that would have been beautiful, very interesting — and it linked in very nicely,” Farquhar says. “We were looking for somewhere safe that would last a long time. But they’re very careful about any physical object that goes into the vault. That would have been a board decision and they couldn’t do it on our timeline.”
Rauber had a backup plan — a place just as impervious but closer to home, the Swiss Fort Knox. Rauber and his team, a public-relations representative from the university and a graduate student, met Farquhar at the hotel the next morning where they assembled the contents of the time capsule into a metal box, loaded it into a black SUV, and made their way to SFK. “It felt very sensible,” he recalls, sitting at the round white table by the desk in his tidy office. “I think it’s helping to raise awareness globally about the fragility of our information and the risks to it. We’re just on the cusp of having held digital information long enough that we’re beginning to feel this.”
“Just three rules before we go inside,” Oschwald says, holding up a trio of tan fingers. “Photograph anything, but we don’t want our staff to be recognised. My face, nobody has a problem if they kill me. But we don’t want people to run around with pictures, saying, ‘These are the guys, let’s take them.’ The second thing is that we don’t want a manual for how to get inside Swiss Fort Knox. And when visiting an IT area, you will see IP addresses and client names. We don’t want you to photograph them.”
And there is one more thing. “We don’t go into every part of the mountain,” Oschwald says, “because otherwise, we would still be there in the night-time.” With that, Oschwald mutters a few things in German to a guard, who takes out a set of keys, unlocks the creaky metal door, and ushers us into the darkness. We shuffle through a curved tunnel of rock lined with incandescent lighting. The acoustics are like a steam room’s. Oschwald’s baritone voice bellows off the textured walls of the cave as he tells us about the night a couple of years ago when some local kids were foolish enough to graffiti the rock wall in the front. The misdemeanour was recorded in infrared, ultraviolet and visible spectrums. “When they got back to town, the police were already waiting for them,” Oschwald says. It was the closest thing to a “threat” SFK has ever had, but there are no plans to downgrade any of the elaborate security measures.
We arrive at an anteroom where two guards armed with pepper spray and truncheons check our bags (guards aren’t allowed to carry guns — flying bullets from a gunfight could cause valuable data to become collateral damage). The duo won’t leave our sides for the remainder of the visit. A welcome sign is posted in several languages next to a massive yellow door, which Oschwald says is 45cm thick and weighs 3.5 tonnes. The hinges have been coated with Teflon to make them work smoothly — as it swings open; there isn’t a squeak to be heard.
“Touch this,” Oschwald says, holding his large hand over the place where the enormous door meets the frame. “What do you feel?” There is the faintest of draughts escaping the hairline gap. This, he says, is deliberate, serving a very particular purpose. “The inside is over pressurised. You have always an out-streaming airflow, so nothing can ever come in — no gas, no smoke.” The guards assign us ID cards and six-digit codes, which we each punch into a keypad and walk through the enormous vault door — only to be greeted by another checkpoint. Here Oschwald informs me that SFK is divided into five security zones — and we are still in “Area Zero”. Area Four, he says, is reserved for about 20 of his most private clients. “We don’t even go in there.”
We’ve barely moved three metres before we’re forced to punch in our codes again and enter, one by one, what looks like a Plexiglas phone box, which Oschwald says is “completely impervious to an M16 rifle”. For a moment, both sides slide shut, leaving us trapped in total silence inside a 45cm-wide tube, surrounded by rock on two sides (SFK might appeal to the paranoid, but it is not for the claustrophobic). The door slides open into an even darker corridor. The silence is perforated by the sound of distant dripping water. Oschwald leads us through the hallway to yet another checkpoint.
But before we enter, he points out a giant metal door that appears to predate his occupancy. This, he explains, is where Oschwald’s territory ends, and the Swiss military’s begins. They haven’t yet sold off the last portion of their previous domain, and for the past two years he’s been trying to cut a deal with them to make his jurisdiction over the compound complete.
“What you have to remember is that some of our clients are coming from countries where governments and militaries are not necessarily their friends,” he says, “so they don’t want to get in touch with any government or public stuff at all.” As we punch our codes at the checkpoint, the yellow door opens into what looks like a city of server towers, their green LEDs flickering as a technician in a white jumpsuit runs diagnostic checks. “In this room we have data for 10,000 clients,” Oschwald says. Physical threats are only one part of the picture, says Steven J Murdoch, a professor and researcher on data security at Cambridge University. “SFK are offering a backup service, which has some desirable protection features, but is by no means a total solution,” he says.
“For example, the threat of a rogue system administrator deleting all the data because they know they are about to be fired is orders of magnitude more likely than an EMP [electromagnetic pulse] or invasion. The fact that the hosting centre is under a mountain doesn’t stop the system administrator corrupting the backup files stored there.” Still, a growing number of secure online backup companies such as IDrive, Carbonite, SOS, Mozy and HP Upline are offering similar services, but without the dramatic location enjoyed by Mount10, the Oschwald company that is responsible for protecting the thousands of terabytes in Swiss Fort Knox.
We are in a dimly lit tunnel next to what looks like a metal oven door carved into the side of the rock. “These are expansion rooms in case you have an atomic explosion outside,” Oschwald says. The thinking behind the rooms, he explains, is that if there were a nuclear explosion, the rush of high-pressure air would fill them through vents in the opposite side. Then, the vents would snap shut, trapping the air before it had a chance of damaging the fortress. “There is a lot of protection you can’t see,” he says. We stroll past an intricate network of insulated pipelines that carry water up from the underground glacial lake to the cooling system.
In another room are two huge drum-like contraptions, which Oschwald explains are military-grade “ABC” filters capable of sapping atomic, biological and chemical impurities from SFK’s air supply. Then we enter an area that he refers to as the “emergency hotel”. It looks like the crew quarters of a submarine. But at the beginning of the hallway, there is an unexpected sight: a conference room. Its walls are painted in a soothing shade of yellow, and there is a coffee machine in the corner. Oschwald envisioned this as the kind of place his corporate clients could use to hold secret meetings in the event of a crisis, away from the press. But it never caught on. “It was tested, but it was never done in reality.”
The four “hotel” rooms, which Oschwald jokingly refers to as “zero- to one-star”, consist of two metal-frame bunk beds and a sink. Each room is decorated with a faded picture of an Alpine landscape. Oschwald says that he stayed here for a week while the facility’s systems were being set up. “But it’s not really what you want. I think if you have a danger and an atomic cloud comes then you know why you’re inside such a facility. But if you have nice sunshine outside, then you definitely don’t want to be in here.”
Spartan aesthetics aside, Swiss Fort Knox might be the most secure place in the world to spend a night. Have CEOs and celebrities got word of, and perhaps taken advantage of, Oschwald’s unrivalled offering of privacy? To this, Oschwald can only say, “If that were true, I wouldn’t be able to talk about it.” What he could say, though, is that “Phil Collins is a friend of Fort Knox.” And when, on our way to tour the rooms, we pass a hilariously out-of-place portrait of two Swiss military officials flanking none other than Tina Turner, Oschwald throws up his hands. “I can’t really say more about that — she would kill me.”
As Oschwald ushers us out of the hotel, we enter one last checkpoint. It empties us out into hallway of yellow doors, each numbered 3 and 4, depending on their security level. The “4s” are for clients who pay extra to bar anyone but themselves. Oschwald holds the door open to reveal what’s inside: four massive clay-coloured metal safes.
“In one of these, and I won’t tell you which one,” Oschwald says, “is the digital genome time capsule.” Sealed in wax, it awaits the next 50 years of human innovation in climate-controlled darkness.
Ian Daly is a writer who lives in New York. He wrote about nuclear fusion in our 08.10 issue
By Ian Daly|05 October 2010