Google mum on mystery barge

CONFIDENTIAL::Speculation about what the Internet giant is constructing ranges from a floating data center to a retail outlet for its ‘Glass’ wearable computer device

Reuters, SAN FRANCISCO

Thu, Oct 31, 2013 - Page 15

How badly does Google want to keep under wraps a mysterious project taking shape on a barge in San Francisco Bay? Badly enough to require US government officials to sign confidentiality agreements.

At least one US Coast Guard employee has had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the Internet giant, coast guard spokesman Barry Bena said.

Another person who would only identify himself as an inspector for a California government agency had to do the same.

Moored in the shadow of the Bay Bridge off Treasure Island, a former military base, the nondescript barge — registered to a company called By and Large LLC — is stacked several stories high with white shipping containers, and sprouts what appear to be antennae on top. The hulking structure, half shrouded in scaffolding, has stirred intense speculation in the Bay Area since reports about its existence surfaced late last week.

Technology Web site CNET theorized that the vessel might be a floating data center that will house banks of computers. Local TV station KPIX said the barge is intended to serve as a floating retail store for Google’s “Glass” wearable computer device — although its external appearance, at least thus far, does not suggest such a purpose.

Adding to the mystery, a second, similar barge was recently spotted in Portland, Maine, and is also registered to By and Large, local media reports say.

The company itself is keeping mum, refusing even to acknowledge its affiliation with the vessels.

Bob Jessup, a construction company superintendent who works in a building across the street, said Google spent the past year working on the project. He said they fenced off a wide area and brought in at least 40 welders a day, who worked around the clock and refused to say a word.

“They wouldn’t give up any of the information,” Jessup said. “It was a phenomenal production. None of them would tell us anything.”

He said they worked on the inside and the outside of the shipping containers, outfitting them with electronics — “very hush hush” — and then loaded them onto the barge with a crane. They put sides on the containers, with glass windows in some of them. They had to weld them very precisely so they could stack, Jessup said.

Jessup said he could not imagine that Google would try to use the floating vessel as a retail outlet.

“Who’s going to want to climb up in there?” he asked. “It’s really ugly.”

Aside from the barge, some nearby property on Treasure Island has also been subleased to By and Large. Representatives of the firm could not be reached for comment.

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Larry Goldzband said the commission has had several meetings with Google officials about the barge in recent months. Yet the company provided little information other than telling him that the vessel will be used for “general technology purposes,” he said.

Google “could not give us a specific plan of any kind,” not even whether it intended the barge to move or stay in one place, Goldzband said.

If the barge remains in place for an extended period of time after its construction is completed, it will require a permit from the commission, he said.

“We’ve asked counsel to get us as much information as soon as they can, so that we can continue the discussion,” Goldzband said, referring to Google’s law firm.