Private citizens working with feds raises concerns
Mon, 24 May 2010 21:42:08 GMT —
Just about everyone has heard the phrase 'big brother is watching.'
In fact, you can't go anywhere without some kind of security camera tracking your every move.
But is there actually some government agency out there keeping an eye on things? Some say it's happening right here in South Carolina.
And citizens have plenty of questions about it.
Carey Shealy has been in the security business for more than 30 years. His statewide security systems firm can help develop surveillance systems for homes, businesses, even cities. Some so use friendly you can control them with an iPhone.
And some are so complex they can find anything you want if you know what to look for.
"You can have a camera right outside on Taylor Street and I need a red motorcycle that went by in the last 24 hours and it can detect all red motorcycles," Shealy says.
But even a security expert like Shealy has never heard of a group that uses something other than cameras to keep an eye on things.
It has internet chatrooms buzzing with conspiracy theories. They question the group's motives, concerned about who they're watching and what they're looking for.
Civil liberties advocates from ACLU also want to know more.
"We're not quite sure what information is exchanging hands and how it touches on public safety," says Victoria Middleton, of South Carolina ACLU.
The group in question is Infragard. It's made up of private citizens working with the FBI and Homeland Security. Some call it a secret society, but there's an official website showing it clearly exists.
The group was created in 1996 to monitor cyber threats, but since 9-11, it's grown considerably.
"They're just not enough FBI agents out there who can accomplish the mission," explains Special Agent Earl Burns of the Columbia FBI office.
Burns coordinates the South Carolina Chapter.
Thirty-five-thousand belong nationwide. There are more than 500 in South Carolina.
Infragard has members in the energy, technology, agriculture and law enforcement fields to name a few. All of them are watching for threats to their infrastructure and national security.
"It's all about sharing information," adds Burns. "On of the things you receive as a member, you receive authorization to access sensitive information."
And that's a problem for some, so WACH FOX News did some digging. The FBI granted us access to an Infragard conference in Columbia.
Something critics say is normally off limits to non-members.
Hundreds were there learning corporate spies and foreign plots to steal U.S. technology. They're trained what to watch for and what to do about it. They share that info with the feds, in return, they get updates about security most people will never see.
"You want the public to have access to the same kind of information," says Middleton. "The average citizen has the right to know."
"This is a voluntary organization," Burns explains. "There's no law enforcement authority bestowed upon a member. It's all about sharing."
Naysayers say Infragard should live up to that mission of sharing by being more transparent, especially when taxpayer dollars are paying the bill.
Training sessions like the one we sat in on are partially funded by a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
"You don't want a double standard of information involving national security issues and public safety," Middleton says.
"Most people only join if they have an interest in what the goals and objectives of the organization are," Burns explains. "We don't bar anyone. It's not at all a secret society."
To find out more about Infragard, including how you can join, click here.