Utah Valley University is quietly becoming one the federal government’s favorite institutions but it might not be for reasons that benefit the community.
The university received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2012 to develop the “Cyber Security Career Pathways” which has been staffed by CIA analysts and NSA agents.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee confirmed his knowledge of the program voiced concerns not only about Utah’s involvement but with the NSA’s activity in general.
“The NSA was set up and put in place as having the purpose of gathering and interpreting foreign intelligence, not domestic surveillance,” Lee said. (This) concerns me. It is being carried out in a way that is not unique to Utah; it includes but is not specific to data collected in Utah. That’s why I’ve been working with a lot of my colleagues, including democrats, on legislation to limit what the NSA is doing particularly in the realm of domestic surveillance.”
Phone calls to the school’s Cyber Security program were not immediately returned for comment.
The Obama administration has been widely criticized over the revelations of domestic surveillance by Edward Snowden late last year, but according to Lee it’s a problem dating back to the Bush administration as well.
“Both the current administration and the previous administration have been aware of what’s been happening,” Lee Said. “In that respect, I don’t think the revelations made a few months ago were all that surprising to the current administration.”
Prior to the Snowden leaks, Lee said he was privy to all kinds of classified information because of his seat in the Senate, but it often put him in a tight spot.
“I’m not even on the intelligence committee but I knew about some of this information and I was not allowed to talk about it,” Lee said. “It was classified but I knew about it nonetheless and that factored into my reasoning for voting against the Patriot Act reauthorization and the reauthorization of the FISA amendments. But I couldn’t talk about it, which put me in a tough position and I had to speak in generalities about the potential for abuse. But now that these things have been made public I can speak a little bit more directly about the risks involved.”
The programs at UVU appear to be all about cyber-security but some would argue when you peel back the layers there appears to be a darker side.
“I had to sign an agreement that said I wouldn’t talk about the program and I had to complete a background check to get NSA clearance to start training,” said a student of the cybersecurity program who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “The students in this program are being recruited and employed by the NSA and UVU is becoming one of the several feeder institutions that receive enormous amounts of funding to produce lifelong employees. Once you are in it’s very hard to get out.”
The 20-year-old student also revealed some information that isn’t in the brochures.
“The teachers are all former CIA and NSA agents that are brought in to teach exactly what they want. The program is very specific to the operations that they run,” the student said.
A professor also speaking on terms of anonymity noted his theory on the financial reasons for why the school might choose to be involved in this project.
“We all know there is something going on but we don’t ever talk to those teachers and don’t know who a lot of them are. But a $3 million dollar grant will go along way in buying silence. It’s easy for the students to get caught up in the excitement of being recruited by the NSA and to not really think about the potential harm that can from all of this data collection,” The professor said.
The professor also had some poignant words about the potential negatives to a program such as this.
“It’s almost a black hole in the school, all the information goes in but nothing ever comes out,” the professor said. “The students are threatened with prosecution and federal jail time just for talking about it, I personally don’t feel that creates a good learning environment, if they want to recruit, do it outside of the school.”
The professor also believes the aviation departments training of students to fly Unmanned Arial Vehicles or UAV’s is connected to the data collection aspect as well.
“For the school to be involved to the degree they are seems counter productive to the main focus of a college education. And they want to say training students to fly drones is not connected to the NSA, but those drones have the capability to add infinitely more data than just collecting phone and Internet usage.”
The College of Aviation and Public Services has been training students to fly drones and the teacher feels the two programs are interconnected.
“They can fly a drone over your house and with infrared technology they can see how many people are in your home, where in the home you are and what type of weapons you may have in the home,” the instructor said. “Drones may have legitimate purposes but there needs to be a watchful eye one what they are doing before it gets out of hand.”
Dean of the college of Aviation and Public Services Wayne Dornan, Ph.D is adamantly opposed to those allegations.
“People in the business, people in the know, never use the d-word,” Dornan said. “In all the discussions we have about where this is going with Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the future, the s–word (surveillance) has never come up either. Those are the two things that the lay people think ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a drone and they’re going to be doing surveillance and spying on me’. In all the discussions I’ve had about UAS’s, the s–word has never come up.”
His view of the future of Unmanned Ariel Vehicles is much brighter than the anonymous source.
“This is a virtual tsunami about to happen,” Dornan said. “The integration of UAS into the Nation Aviation Services is one of the most important things to happen in aviation since the Wright brothers. That’s how critical this is because this is going to change how we think about aviation.”
Regardless of the intentions of those in charge, Lee said it’s not a question of whether this type of data collection will be abused, but when.
“We’ve seen this movie before, we know how it ends. People when they have access to this type of information, the private detailed limitless data, it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses it for pretty nefarious reasons, including for partisan political purposes. Whether that occurs now, a year from now or ten years from now, it’s hard to say. But we know it’s eventually going to happen.”
Despite the bleak outlook for personal privacy, Senator Lee feels that we have not passed the point of no return just yet.
“I wouldn’t say we are at a point where it’s spiraled out of control to where Congress couldn’t get ahold of it, the question is ‘how long will it take Congress to act, and will congress actually do the right thing?’ If they’ve got all this data on phone calls that have been made by Americans, and if they want to search that, I think they need to have a search warrant,” Lee said.
“If I collect the data on all the phone calls you have ever made, and every phone call that’s ever been made to you, if I can compare (that data) it to who you’re calling, who’s calling you, when you are calling and where you are calling from, I can find out a lot about you that I really have no business discovering as a government entity. It’s just not that comforting to hear them say ‘It’s ok, we have really good employees at the NSA and they would never manipulate that data set, they would never use it for nefarious purposes.’ That doesn’t give me any assurance at all, it’s pretty disquieting.”