Are you on the list?

May 25, 2008 at 2:28 am Leave a comment

Kim Photo -- reflectionsHave you heard of Main Core? Nope, either had I. Do you often wonder whether Governments have secret lists of people they’d round up in the event of a national emergency or martial law? Yep, I have. But it wasn’t until I read an article in Radar that I realised any suspicions I’ve had might in fact be close to reality.

I’ve long ranted and raved about CCTV, intrusions on our privacy and dwindling civil rights. I’m counting the days until Bush leaves office and let’s hope he takes Main Core with him. What is Main Core you ask? It’s an alleged database stuffed full of the private details of 8 million Americans who would be considered suspect, dangerous, unfriendly or…enemies of the state….in the event that martial law is ever declared in the US.

Now, this sounds like a good conspiracy theory doesn’t it. But when someone like James Comey talks about how ominous the domestic spying and surveillance programme has become in the US, well..frankly…I take note. Comey, of course, was Deputy Attorney-General in the Bush Administration until 2005. He was second top dog in the Department of Justice, under John Ashcroft.

And in 2004, Comey became very uneasy about Bush’s programme to collate data in a database and the DOJ had to certify whether the domestic spying programme was legal. Ashcroft was hussled off to hospital with pancreatitis, which made Comey acting Attorney-General. What happened next I’d consider a comedy if it wasn’t so dark.

Comey was not going to certify the Administration’s programme and he came under severe pressure from senior White House staff. Ashcroft was recovering in intensive care but that didn’t stop Bush from sending the Chief of Staff and White House Counsel to the hospital to try and get Ashcroft’s paw print of approval. Comey rushed to the hospital and beat the two senior staffers to the hospital room – all very X-Files sounding if you ask me.

Ashcroft deferred to Comey saying Comey was the Attorney-General. The two senior staffers walked out in a huff. The very next day, the programme was sanctioned without the legal certification of the DOJ. In 2007, Comey testified before Congress (not something you do lightly!) and told a tale about his fight to protect the civil liberties of Americans. Sources familiar with the Main Core programme have stated that the collection of private citizens’ data has been too zealous and that data may have been sourced whilst violating the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable search and seizure). So in the event of a national emergency in the US, 8 million or so citizens will be vulnerable to increased surveillance, tracking and possible detention.

I looked into this a little more. Main Core allegedly collates information from State and Local agencies, so the type of data collected (without the need for a warrant) includes:

  • email addresses someone sends to and from
  • phone numbers dialled and duration of calls
  • internet sites you visit and what you search
  • airline tickets purchased and destinations
  • ATM withdrawals
  • credit card transactions
  • financial records

Sophisticated software programs trawl through the heap of data looking for unusual or suspicious patterns. Now, I’m not a lawyer expert in US law but I do recall (and someone please help me out here) that a 1979 Supreme Court ruling is what the US Government relies on when collecting telephone records data. (I’m pretty sure it’s Smith v Maryland 442 U.S. 735 (1979). The ruling states that records of conversations can be collected but not the actual content of the conversation itself. I don’t know what law or laws the US Government is relying on when it “stitches together” a profile of a citizen aggregated from disparate sources. The actual profile is not simply a “record” because it would reveal “content” ie what keywords or websites were searched for example. So is there another law they’re relying on or are they stretching the 1979 Ruling?

If Main Core and the US Government’s domestic intelligence programmes are so secret squirrel, then I don’t see how public and legal debate can take place to ensure that a reasonable expectation of privacy isn’t being stomped on.

Just think of the many trails and crumbs you leave behind and how your Government could build a profile on you. Go to the Supermarket and pay by credit card or Loyalty Card – there’s a crumb of information. Go overseas: there’s your airline ticket, passenger, destination detail trails and any purchases made in foreign countries, hotel information and so on. ATM withdrawals – there’s your regular pattern of withdrawals. Financial records, tax records, internet searches and of course, CCTV, to visually spot and track you. You think you can live in contemporary society without authorities being able to build a pattern of your life and know very personal details? Think again.

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Entry filed under: Privacy, Surveillance society, United States.

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