Digital Fort Knox: Inside The World’s Most Secretive Data Center

You won't find gold or weapons stored deep in the granite caves of Switzerland’s Bernese Alps. Instead, the mountain range holds more precious treasure — servers and hard drives.

Inside the Swiss Fort Knox
Inside the Swiss Fort Knox
Yann Cherix

SWISS ALPS â€" The data center lies in a former military bunker beneath a mountain in the middle of the Swiss Alps.

This is where pharmaceutical companies save their recipes for patented medicines, where banks save the personal data of their customers and where NGOs save the data of their benefactors. The locals, too, recognize the value of the safe. Both the upper and lower house of Switzerland’s parliament have their servers hidden here.

The data center, known as the Swiss Fort Knox, is considered to be the world’s safest place to store data.

“We are the last resort. If something goes wrong here, it is highly likely that all the data will be gone forever,” says Christoph Oschwald, who co-founded the company Mount 10 that created the Swiss Fort Knox.

Since 1994, Oschwald and business partner Hanspeter Baumann converted the former headquarters of the Swiss Air Force into a top-notch data center by installing emergency diesel engines, a ventilation system, a filter and an air-pressure system to prevent the entry of any poisonous gases. Water from an underground lake keeps the center’s cooling system at 8 degrees Celsius. All the data is encrypted and the digital key to decrypt them remains with clients.

“Should all ties be severed we are still able to function autonomously for several weeks,” says Oschwald.

In case all the security measures fail, an underground network of high-speed cables links the center to a second server that holds a backup of the data in a mountain 10 kilometers away.

Data centers are the latest battleground in the war for information.

Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, it appears that any means to an end are sanctioned in the digital sphere. Snowden revealed that National Security Agency spies in the U.S. had identified themselves as information technology staff at private companies to gain access to servers.

Such a deception would be difficult to carry out at the Swiss Fort Knox. An intruder may get past the front door camouflaged as rock but, beyond that, it’s a complicated system of tunnels that only people with necessary clearance can access. Oschwald, who was a Swiss paratrooper, ensures that security checks are water-tight. We are only allowed to reveal that these checks start with a biometric facial recognition scan, watched over by a security guard, the head of the company and a camera. On the other end of the camera, someone, somewhere, in Switzerland, pushes the buttons to open steel doors that weigh 3.5 tons and lead into the innermost sanctum of the data center.

But not everyone is convinced that data centers like the Swiss Fort Knox are unbreachable.

Zurich-based lawyer Martin Steiger, who specializes in digital privacy, is always amused when he hears of data shelters that promise the highest level of security. “Data is always vulnerable, no matter where it is stored,” he says. Telling customers that they will get the highest level of security possible is a marketing strategy, says Steiger.

Oschwald knows that his fortress is not impregnable. There are cables connected to his servers that allow for data to be sent to and from the outside world. And his firewalls have to be taken down for maintenance every once in a while. “But there are a lot of dangers that we will not be subjected to here. Just think of solar storms.” These storms cut electricity in Sweden in 2003 for several hours resulting in damaged servers. Indeed, several flights to the U.S. had to be rerouted in 2012 after solar storms wreaked havoc on servers. These incidents demonstrate how vulnerable our digital world is and the growing need to store data safely.

The Swiss Association of Telecommunications estimates that the space for data centers will grow 10% every year. The amount of data generated in the world doubles with each passing year. About 300,000 million pictures are uploaded everyday on Facebook alone. Data generated by people has already entered the “zettabyte” sphere, a level that ordinary people are unable to even comprehend. All this data needs to be stored in a physical hard drive and that’s where Switzerland comes in.

Only Ireland has more data centers per capita than Switzerland, a country that has positioned itself well on the international data protection market.

Data servers inside Swiss Fort Knox â€" Photo: Mount10-wiki

Many companies believe Switzerland is a great location for data servers, preferring it to countries like Germany despite the fact that the latter is home to a quarter of Europe’s server centers. Mike Jank, co-founder and chairman of the encrypted communications company Silent Circle, points out that his customers do not trust a product if it comes from the European Union, Russia or Asia. And certainly not one from the U.S. Customers fear that intelligence services in those parts have unhindered access to supposedly secure information.

But such beliefs are misplaced, says Steiger.

“Switzerland only operates at an average level when it comes to data security as our conditions here are very close to that of the EU,” he says.

Switzerland is attractive to customers because of its image. “If a company is located in Switzerland it still emanates trustworthiness,” Steiger says.

That image also draws the trust of the wrong kind of people. Oschwald is aware of this.

“We most certainly do not want any dubious clients or criminals as customers at our data shelter,” he says. Although the company does not know the contents of the data it stores, the access to external IP addresses gives them an idea about their clientele. “We have never had to cancel a client’s contract to this day,” he says.

After we leave the Swiss Fort Knox, Oschwald points to the camouflaged front door of the center. “This is not just meant to be used by large companies,” he says.

“I am not just interested in the business side of things in this case. I am also a citizen. I do not understand a state which takes liberties and delves ever deeper into our privacy. I do not understand most of the general population who do nothing to protect their private data either. What would you say if you received letters at home that had already been opened and read by authorities? Would you like that? No? There you go.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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