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BLUFFDALE — A California-based group that has been battling the National Security Agency for years in lawsuits flew a giant blimp over the NSA Data Center in Utah early Friday.
Parker Higgen, of the San Francisco-based group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., he — along with a pilot from Greenpeace — flew a blimp over the data center with a banner that stated: "NSA. Illegally spying below."
The group, he said, was trying to raise awareness for its new website, standagainstspying.org.
"We fight for people's civil liberties when they come in contact with technology," Higgin said.
The foundation tweeted Friday, "We're in an airship over the NSA's data center in Utah with our friends @GreenpeaceUSA & @TenthAmendment, demanding an end to mass spying."
The National Security Agency's Data Center is located in Bluffdale and has been the focus of national scrutiny and criticism. It is believed to be a destination for huge amounts of data from around the world collected by the tight-lipped agency.
"You think that this is really happening to somebody else or in the abstract. Really there's this big physical space where all of this data is being stored — data about people in this country and around the world," Higgen said.
Higgen told KSL's Doug Wright Friday after the flight that he had the blimp loaded in a trailer and drove it to Utah from California, and then launched it in the dark from a field. The blimp is owned by Greenpeace.
Even though Greenpeace typically protests environmental issues, Higgen said they, along with all activists, have become increasing targets of government surveillance.
Higgen said despite the apparent rogue nature of the protest, his group actually checked ahead of time to make sure it wouldn't be violating air space violations, particularly over Camp Williams.
"We checked in advance that everything was legal," he said. "At least for now, thumbing your nose at the government is not illegal. ... We did not break the law."
We checked in advance that everything was legal. At least for now, thumbing your nose at the government is not illegal. ... We did not break the law.
–Parker Higgen, Electronic Frontier Foundation
He said the air space restrictions didn't begin until 7 a.m., when people from the data center arrived for work. Neither the Utah National Guard nor Utah Department of Public Safety was called to respond to the aircraft.
The NSA issued a statement Friday that the Utah Data Center "is designed to help carry out the CNCI's mission by protecting national security networks and providing U.S. authorities with intelligence and warnings about cyber threats." The agency went on to say that "all operations are conducted in strict accordance with the law."
Despite the early hour of the protest, Higgen believes that based on the number of cars he saw pulled over to watch, "It ended up making the splash we wanted to."
The group also hired a helicopter to follow them and take pictures.
Garry Garrett lives nearby, and he said he doesn't like that the NSA building is there. He considers the facility a potential terrorist target, and he doesn't like the fact that the facility uses a lot of water to cool equipment while he was on water restriction last year. He's also leery of the work they do.
"I would like to see more people having a conversation about why it's there and what the benefits are versus the detriments to us," Garret said.
Garret said he approves of the protest.
"I think it's great. This is America, they have the right to protest," he said.