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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  They're Watching You Page 1
Cover Story

They're Watching You Page 1

What no one is telling you about the proposed cop shop in Library Square.

By Ted McDonough
Posted // May 20,2009 - You are strolling along at the farmers market in Pioneer Park studying produce when you glance up and notice a tall black pole topped with a white box that appears to be staring back at you. On closer inspection, you see the “SLCPD” logo on the pole. It’s a police camera capable of zooming in to focus on the tomato in your hand.

Wander away from the park with your head tilted up, and you’ll start noticing the half-globe surveillance cameras everywhere: all over Gallivan Plaza, watching the sidewalk outside the now-abandoned Port O’Call, even hanging from a sidewalk streetlight at the intersection of 200 South and West Temple.

Feeling paranoid yet? What if all those security cameras—public and private— were hooked into a central police monitoring station? It’s already happening in cities from Chicago to Dallas, though not yet here, according to the Salt Lake City Police Department.

A few years down the road, however, Utahns might look back on February 2009, when the Pioneer Park cameras began monitoring activities in the square 24/7, as the birth of the city’s new surveillance society in which unblinking lenses watch indoors and out while state supercomputers troll though citizens´ personal electronic information searching for “suspicious activity.”

Already, police cameras peek in at some Salt Lake City businesses. Now, a Utah state program of interlinked state and federal supercomputers mingling data on petty thieves and known terrorists with the personal identity and credit information of lawabiding citizens is set to explode.

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The project that Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker lauded in his state-of-the-city address as an “intelligence-gathering fusion center”—and that civil liberties groups on the left and right worry is a new domestic spying system—is slated to have its Utah headquarters in Becker’s “civic campus” of public-safety buildings to be constructed on or near Library Square with proceeds from a November bond election. The Utah Fusion Center, as the project is known, is taking off thanks in part to infusions of cash from the Obama administration’s job-creating American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

When Salt Lake City watchdog Steve Erickson saw millions of dollars of high-tech spying equipment included on Salt Lake City’s list of “shovel-ready” stimulus projects, it confirmed what he´d been hearing about federal surveillance efforts coming to Utah: facial-recognition technology for Utah Transit Authority buses, an aerial surveillance drone to monitor crowds, hundreds of thousands for wireless surveillance and an artificial-intelligence computer capable of “watching” surveillance cameras for suspicious activity.

“How is spying on Americans creating jobs?” asks Erickson, who, with a small Salt Lake City organization called Citizens Education Project, has been in the forefront trying to keep government surveillance at bay in the Beehive State.

Tall and wiry with a deep-voice, Erickson’s viewpoint on government spying stems from his involvement in student movements during the Vietnam War. Back then, activists were outraged to learn that FBI COINTELPRO agents infiltrated student groups. Forty years on, Erickson sometimes wonders if he’s the only one who cares anymore. He has watched the Utah Fusion Center slowly develop for years but has had little luck trying to pique the interest of public officials.

“If people are comfortable with passive-invasive technology, so be it,” says Erickson. “But some of us old-school boys remember the government dossiers on us during the Vietnam protests.”

One item, in particular, on Salt Lake City’s stimulus wish list caught Erickson’s eye: An $836,000 “shovel ready” project asking for a “software program to search, manage and analyze vast amounts of criminal investigation information from wide ranging data sources” and two police officers to run it. A similar request was described in an April 2009 city grant application as “a technology solution to mining for information collected by state and federal agencies."

It turns out that money is intended for the Utah Fusion Center, a partnership between Utah’s Department of Public Safety, the FBI, the federal Homeland Security Department, the National Guard and local police agencies to create a network of interlinked computer databases and a core of specially trained officers to feed information to the system.

Administered by the state Department of Public Safety, the Utah Fusion Center is part of a network of 60 to 70 fusion centers established throughout the country with $250 million of grants from the terrorism-fighting federal Homeland Security Department. The centers caught flak April 1 during a day of hearings devoted to the program by a congressional Homeland Security committee. Critics warned of America returning to the 1960s where local police “red squads” spied on activists and politicians in the name of rooting out subversives.

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed to political spying already begun by state fusion centers, such as a Texas fusion center asking police to report activities of anti-war protesters and a “threat assessment” from Virginia’s fusion center that called the state’s historically black universities “a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group.”

In the Beehive State, the Utah Fusion Center—also known as the Statewide Information Analysis Center—has watchdogs and lawmakers shaking their heads for another reason; they have already fought—and defeated—the snooping supercomputers once before.

In 2004, the all-seeing national computer database that promised to find terrorists by combing Americans’ electronic files was called MATRIX, or Multistate Anti- Terrorism Information Exchange. The project was so badly bungled—and so widely pilloried by groups as disparate as the ACLU and the Utah Eagle Forum—that former Utah Gov. Olene Walker made scrapping it one of her first acts after taking office.

Matrix Reloaded
Championed by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both Republicans, MATRIX emerged from the wreckage of Total Information Awareness, a domestic-spying program proposed in the aftermath of 9/11, but quickly closed down by Congress in 2003 citing post-Watergate laws that ban the government from collecting dossiers on lawabiding Americans.

MATRIX tried to get around the problem by turning the job of collecting state databases over to a private Florida company—a private company that just happened to be financed by the federal Homeland Security Department with grant money obtained by a former commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Public records obtained in 2004 by Citizens Education Project showed that Leavitt had signed Utah up for MATRIX and downloaded Utah databases into the system without telling the Legislature. Utah’s exit was the beginning of the end for MATRIX, and a panel Walker assembled to review the program recommended Utah stay away until it worked out “adequate oversight and appropriate privacy safeguards.”

Fast-forward five years and it seems the MATRIX, like the 2003 movie sequel, has been reloaded. A recent public records request by Citizens Education Project shows that the Utah Fusion Center, in addition to accessing law-enforcement records, is—like MATRIX—tapping into databases maintained by private companies that claim to have billions of records on law-abiding citizens.

Some Utah legislators who served on former-Gov. Olene Walker’s 2004 MATRIX review committee are flabbergasted the state is again moving to share its citizens’ information and, yet again, they have heard hardly a peep from the governor’s office.

State Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, says the explicit direction from the 2004 committee was to require future governors to return to the Legislature before moving forward with the MATRIX or any similar program. Davis isn’t against law-enforcement agencies sharing information but says, “You have a certain level of right to privacy. A state database on how many times you burped when you were a baby, that’s a little alarming to me.”

“With the way technology is, there is no way to say data can’t be fused,” says Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, another member of the 2004 MATRIX review panel. “But we need to make sure we have the appropriate constraints on government such that it doesn’t become a reckless endeavor.”

If Utah continues with a fusion center, Dougall wants a citizen oversight committee, audits of who accesses the system and why, and consultation with the Legislature.

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // April 28,2011 at 23:58

Thank you City Weekly and Mr Erickson for this article. We need to be informed about any plan to install or implement any new cameras, information technology, interstate or county communications, microphones or any type of phone surveillance. We need more than one article or one news story on one channel that we may or may not see or read. I know there are groups that try to watch “big brother”, but without getting people involved, how do we stop this pointless government movement to total and complete surveillance?

This is my problem with continuing forward with surveillance like this. WE ARE GIVING OUR SOLDIERS, IOU’S., but we can afford new cameras? The city wants $200 million for a new police station, and got about $129 million. They want millions for a new prison. They want millions to open new “pods” in the new jail, I’m glad the Sherriff had to sell the helicopters to pay for that. They want almost $1 million, according to this article, to pay for new surveillance cameras and stations.

These cameras and surveillance stations and equipment are overfilling our jails. The county wants the inmates to pay for insurance. Then they want the released inmate to pay $40 a day for the jail stay. So, these inmates lose their insurance and job because they go to jail. Some people deserve jail, but with an overcrowded jail system and a low crime rate, why does Salt Lake City need the extra surveillance. The newly released prisoners now have to look for a new job, with a criminal record, during the worst recession ever. When they finally get a job the county takes 50% of their gross income to pay for the jail stay. Now the inmates who can’t afford housing or food and have to feed a family have to turn to welfare, which is overloaded, and crime to survive.

 

Posted // April 28,2011 at 23:59 - It’s a pointless, endless cycle for someone that is being “filmed”, or under 24/7 surveillance. So, I just wanted to remind everyone about the war on drugs we are losing, and the soldiers being paid IOU’s to fight the war on drugs. We haven’t even touched on terrorism yet, this is on a local level with petty crime. I by no means mean to discredit or “stick up” for any criminals that molest, steal, or harm others. So this regime, or current government wonders why there is an underground movement to redirect our total common interest and finances. I’m not saying there is a movement, and my post will probably be taken off some day, not by City Weekly I’m sure. But really, how far do we have to go to realize that this will happen someday. How much of our money can they spend on destroying millions of peoples lives. These are our tax dollars and this is not how we want them spent. I would appreciate Mr Erickson, or anyone, for creating some kind of system, Facebook Twitter and Email, to be sent out to inform people before the government spends our tax dollars in a way the tax payers don’t want it spent. It’s to often that I see a news story or read an article like this after the surveillance is in place or the money is spent. I’m sure more people would get involved in preventing things like this happening. Thank You for listening to my long point of view on the subject, I’m the same as most people struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession ever. It just kills me to hear of all these types of things after the Government has installed or put surveillance in place to keep people in the system. I’m not far left or disagree that some people are just bad people and require prison, I’m a person near chronic homelessness with a record and can’t find work. I’m lucky that I have received help and don’t have to break the law, but it’s sad to see so many people struggle to live and support their families, forced into criminal activity forced by an endless cycle of misguided tax dollars spent to monitor someone walking down the street. The cameras would do better at the Mexican boarder to fight the war on drugs and the money would be better spent on the Soldiers would protect us from terrorism, not someone stealing a tomato.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 27,2009 at 14:26

Salt Lake has such a low crime rate! Why on earth would they think we need this?

Giving a big, fat "NO THANKS!" to Big Brother!

Solidifying the right to privacy is past due, don't you think? Shall we spell it out for them in the constitution, with a redundant amendment?