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The revelation of PRISM – and the suggestion that it may employ the services of our favourite global tech giants to keep tabs on non-US denizens – has been getting all the news recently.  However, we might be uncomfortably staggered to discover just how sinisterly pervasive tech surveillance has become.

Has anyone heard of Main Core? For those who haven’t look it up on Wikipedia:

Main Core is the code name of a database maintained since the 1980s by the federal government of the United States. Main Core contains personal and financial data of millions of U.S. citizens believed to be threats to national security. The data, which comes from the NSA, FBI, CIA, and other sources, is collected and stored without warrants or court orders. The database's name derives from the fact that it contains "copies of the 'main core' or essence of each item of intelligence information on Americans produced by the FBI and the other agencies of the U.S. intelligence community."

The Main Core database is believed to have originated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1982, following Ronald Reagan's Continuity of Operations plan outlined in the National Security Directive (NSD) 69 / National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 55, entitled "Enduring National Leadership," implemented on September 14, 1982.

As of 2008 there were reportedly eight million Americans listed in the database as possible threats, often for trivial reasons, whom the government may choose to track, question, or detain in a time of crisis.

Did you get all of that folks? Just in case you didn’t please allow yourselves to consider this precis:

•    As of five years ago, there were extensive files compiled and stored on a database with information on 8 million US citizens.
•    This personal information was collected and organised by various security agencies without any legal authority – in other words illegally.
•    People and their personal information have often been placed on this database on a whim, often for trivial reasons.
•    At any time that US Government deems is a time of crisis – say a natural disaster or a mass anti-government demonstration, the Government can detain these people if it wishes, even without probable cause.

As if that doesn’t strike you as having heavy shades of totalitarian overtones, then perhaps you may consider that this database is not likely to have shrunk in the past five years – databases, unless you’re a failing telephone operator, rarely get smaller.

Main Core may now contain files on tens of millions of Americans deemed to be potential threats to national security. Couple it together with PRISM and the US could well have files on hundreds of millions of ordinary global citizens within and outside its borders.

What sort of information on people has been gathered and stored by Main Core – and by extension PRISM?

 According to investigative journalist Christopher Ketcham, who wrote a report about Main Core for Radar Magazine in 2008, the sort of information being stored includes: the e-mail addresses you send to and receive from, and the subject lines of those messages; the phone numbers you dial, the numbers that dial in to your line, and the durations of the calls; the Internet sites you visit and the keywords in your Web searches; the destinations of the airline tickets you buy; the amounts and locations of your ATM withdrawals; and the goods and services you purchase on credit cards.

It would be easy to dismiss the above as the product of fanciful imaginations of paranoid conspiracy theorists. However, it’s all well documented, the reality of our surveillance state is in our faces, and whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork like cockroaches exiting a burning house. In addition, anyone in the IT game knows that the above is not only possible but trivial stuff to accomplish.

Of course there are still the apologists for the surveillance state of the Western Empire who argue that it is keeping us safe from unseen terrorist enemies. However, the argument wears thin when we see our forces engaging in adventures in foreign lands colluding with the same so-called terrorists we call our enemies to bring down the governments of those lands.

Our accomplishments in the information and communication technologies over the past three decades have been breathtaking. Most of us now carry a smartphone that does just about everything that a plethora of devices that we once needed used to do. However, it’s a sobering thought to realise that the very same device that we now use to navigate our way to an unknown destination could also be used by authorities who may not like our attitude to navigate their way to us.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.