Data Center sparks civil liberties debate in Utah

By Kim Johnson

Published 07/07 2013 09:46PM

Updated 07/13 2013 07:23AM

BLUFFDALE, Utah (ABC 4 News) – Is big brother coming to Utah? A new facility is about to open in the Beehive state and it's touted by some to be the most advanced spy center in the world.

What does it all mean for Utah and for the future of the country?

On the 4th of July holiday, demonstrators armed with signs and full of frustration, gathered to protest the Utah Data Center slated to open in Bluffdale this fall. It’s the NSA's epicenter to fight terrorism.

What super-computers inside do is classified. But speculation is rampant after leaker Edward Snowden revealed a secret spy program had access to the private communications of millions of Americans.

The question now, what ease dropping will be happening right here in Utah?

The NSA wouldn't say. They declined to answer any questions.

Homeland Security Expert Tom Panuzio tells ABC4’s Kim Johnson, they will be eavesdropping, but not on everyone.

“The focus of the data center is to collect information, intercept terrorism threats, identify persons of interest that are potentially terrorists or can commit terrorists acts against the United States,” he said.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is more skeptical.

When asked if Utahns should be concerned about the amount of data collected at the facility, Sen. Lee said, “We always have to be concerned about what government could do. I'm willing to assume that all the people working for the NSA have good intentions and they want to keep us safe, but experience has taught us that we shouldn't just trust government blindly.”

Sen. Lee believes most Utahns are clueless when it comes to the government's reach.

“If you have an inbox that contains emails that are older than 180 days, those lose their protection, those lose any statutory protection they have,” he said.

That's why Sen. Lee wants to curb the snooping. He wants new laws protecting Americans' emails forever and new safeguards that'd make it difficult for the NSA to get information on citizens.

But the spy programs some aim to scale back, others call the new age of warfare.

“The Cold War is over, now it's terrorists and wars are fought over the internet,” said Panuzio. “Terrorists are using the internet to recruit individuals who then are going to come and attack American assets here and abroad and unless the NSA can monitor those threats, they can't keep America safe and the fact is this data center keeps America safe because it monitors what the bad guys are doing.”

The NSA insists its surveillance programs save lives thwarting terrorist plots in the US and more than 20 countries. But civil liberty groups call it an unnecessary means to an end.

“There was nothing special about these dragnet surveillance programs that were necessary for preventing those attacks,” said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah. “Those attacks, a lot of them were prevented by regular old police work.”

When questioned by ABC 4 Utah’s Kim Johnson whether prevented attacks are reason enough to continue with the surveillance, Mejia said, “We have all sorts of safeguards in place that are 200 years old. They have worked just fine until now. There is no clear reason to start dispensing the protections that are time-honored and time-tested and define us as a country.”

So as the country turns another year older, it's fitting to wonder what the founding fathers would believe. Has the federal government they created gone too far? Or only doing what's necessary to protect its citizens?

The answer may lie right here in the land of purple mountain majesties. The fight for civil rights continues in Utah’s own backyard.

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