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May 20, 2009 News » Cover Story

They're Watching You 

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

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Squires says he has studied Utah’s MATRIX episode as well as recent embarrassing gaffes by other states’ fusion centers and promises the Utah Fusion Center won’t be repeating the mistakes of spying on law-abiding citizens.

Safeguards already in place include a requirement that anyone tapping into fusion-center databases first have a criminal case number in hand. And use of the system is audited to ensure there are no fishing expeditions.

“We absolutely understand the rights to freedom of speech, to gather and assemble,” adds Jeff Carr, deputy director of the State Bureau of Investigation and immediate supervisor of the state’s fusion center. “Frankly, I don’t have time (to spy on political groups). There are so many legitimate criminal activities we are involved with.”

Squires says he wants the Utah Fusion Center to be “as transparent as possible.” While the center’s governing board is currently made up entirely of lawmen, fusion center directors are discussing adding a state lawmaker or even a private citizen. “The public needs to feel their personal information and rights are protected,” says Squires who briefed the ACLU of Utah on the project in summer 2008.

Fusion-center directors point to federal guidelines that prohibit them collecting information unless it is connected to a specific criminal investigation. Carr says the Intelligence Liaison Officer Program— which already involves 60 Utah law enforcement agencies—is mostly just about getting police from different parts of the state together for a regular conference call.

Five years ago, Utahns were shocked at the idea of a giant law-enforcement computer with access to their personal data. But today, seven years into the War on Terror, people may be getting more used to the idea. Millions now share intimate details of their daily lives publicly on social networking Websites. They’ve come to ignore pervasive surveillance cameras. They’re even agreeing to full-body scans at the airport.

But Erickson isn’t a convert. “What appears innocent on the surface and in the beginning may not be when bureaucracy becomes its own raison d’etre,” says Erickson, who is calling for a moratorium on activities of the Utah Fusion Center until public officials weigh in.

“Are we going to make a long-term commitment to this sort of surveillance without any public input?” he asks. “This ought to be the subject of vigorous public debate.”

The conversation Erickson has been waiting so long for has finally begun, and it’s being led by conservatives. Now that Democratic President Barack Obama has inherited the national security infrastructure, it’s the right’s turn to be paranoid.

Today, the best-known critic of fusion centers is conservative radio host Michael Savage. U.S. Senator Bob Bennett, R-Utah, recently joined a chorus of critics on the right calling for an apology from Obama’s Homeland Security secretary over a leaked memo that warned of “right-wing extremism” among gun lovers and abortion foes. Utah’s House of Representatives this spring thumbed its collective nose at federal plans for a national standard “Real ID” compatible with facial-recognition technology.

And Utah’s newest representative to Congress, Jason Chaffetz, has penned a bill to stop the Transportation Security Administration from forcing U.S. airline travelers through security screeners that see through clothing. “They don’t need to see my 8-year-old daughter naked to secure that airplane,” says Chaffetz. He had never heard of fusion centers but adds he is generally suspicious of government claiming a need to intrude on privacy.

“I’m a security hawk, but let’s focus on where the problems are and not spy on innocent Americans,” Chaffetz says. “I inherently do not trust the federal government. We have to be very, very careful—the far-right and far-left and everyone in the middle—giving up our liberties in pursuit of safety.”

Learn more about police use of cameras as well as the various surveillance equipment and technology on tap for the Salt Lake Valley:

How They Watch

Candid Cop: SLCPD cameras are watching, but police say they usually aren’t looking

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