San Francisco's mayor says he doesn’t know what it is. Police say it’s not in their jurisdiction. And government inspectors are sworn to secrecy.
Google is erecting a four-storey structure in the heart of the San Francisco Bay but is managing to conceal its purpose by constructing it on docked barges instead of on land, where city building permits and public plans are mandatory. Construction became obvious a few weeks ago.
The Internet giant’s actions at Treasure Island appear legal. But the mystery surrounding the bulky floating building — and a similar one off Portland, Maine — is generating rumours and worries.
Privacy experts, environmentalists and legal authorities say whether it is a store to sell Google’s Internet-connected glasses, a data storage centre or something else, the secrecy may backfire because Silicon Valley residents are highly protective of one of the most scenic and environmentally sensitive bays in the US.
“At some point they’re going to have to unveil what it is they’re doing, and it will be sad if they have put a lot of money into something that is simply not allowable in the bay,” said Deb Self, executive director of the environmental group Baykeeper.
Self said whether the barge-mounted structure is a store, as is widely rumoured, or a data centre powered by wave action, for which Google has a patent, there are going to be grave concerns.
“We don’t really want to see the bay used as a shopping mall. Unacceptable,” she said. And environmentalists warn that water-cooled data centres might warm the sea and harm marine life.
Google’s usually responsive media relations team did not respond to repeated calls or emails over several days, but records and other official accounts identify the project as Google’s.
Google has dodged public scrutiny by essentially constructing a vessel, not a building. Thus it doesn’t need permits from San Francisco, a city with copious inspection and paperwork requirements for builders.
If, when the project’s ready, Google wants to sail it out the Golden Gate and into the Pacific, the tech giant won’t ever need to explain what it’s been up to. But if Google wants to do anything with the structure in the bay, it will have to face public scrutiny, said BCDC executive director Larry Goldzband.