The history of electronic surveillance, from Abraham Lincoln's wiretaps to Operation Shamrock

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Did you hear the one about AT&T? It's no joke. The New York Times, citing government officials, says the company is receiving ten million dollars from the CIA to assist with overseas counter terrorism investigations. This allows the CIA to exploit AT&T's vast database of phone records, especially international calls. Now, whether right or wrong, government surveillance goes way back. Here at the World, we like to look at where we've come from and how we got here. In fact, we're starting a new segment we're calling "The World that Was". Overseeing that beat is our resident history buff, Chris Wolf. And Chris, what did you find out about all this?

Chris Woolf: Well it goes back to the very first electronic media: the telegraph. You know, the old dots and dashes of Morse code, which would be written up and delivered to people as telegrams. In fact, the name AT&T itself started life long ago as the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, although the corporation's changed considerably since then.

Werman: What were the problems back then with that kind of surveillance?

Woolf: Well, the first weak link in the chain is that you're delivering your message in person to a telegraph operator who's going to transcribe it and transmit it to one or more operators and other stations until you get to your destination. So obviously, they can leak the information physically. Then you can just literally tap the telegraph wire anywhere along its length and listen in to the messages being transmitted. US states introduced the first legislation against this as early as the 1860s, but governments weren't to concerned, especially when national security was an issue. And apparently, intercepted telegrams were routinely landing on Abraham Lincoln's desk during the Civil War.

Werman: So, in the 19th century, were they employees telegraph security consultants who could intervene?

Woolf: Yes, they were! And literally you just had people come up with codes and ciphers to try and confuse anybody who might be listening in.

Werman: So when did mass surveillance begin?

Woolf: Just about a century ago, around the time of World War I, just before and just after when countries decided it was worth trying to gather as much information as they could for the obvious, like national security questions of the time. The main problem of course, is just how labor intensive it was, before computerization. Here in the states, all interference in electronic and wireless communications was illegal, but US military intelligence wasn't deterred by that. They cut a deal with Western Union in 1920 to be able to look into whatever telegrams they were interested in.

Werman: So the US military and Western Union together in 1920, today it's the CIA and AT&T. You said surveillance then, back in World War I was mostly to do with national security. Did it work? Was the nation more secure?

Woolf: Well, let's just qualify it, we're talking about the US and Western democracies here, were ostensibly using national security as an excuse for this kind of wiretapping, eavesdropping. Authoritarian states that were emerging in Europe in the 1920s and 30s used it for much more sinister purposes. Here, the surveillance system was temporarily halted in 1929 by Secretary of State, Henry Stimson. New on the job, some intercepted Japanese military cables land on his desk and he just takes his glasses off and says "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."


Woolf: Anyway, not a great move for national security, perhaps, and some historians argue that may have helped the Japanese achieve surprise at Pearl Harbor, just a few years later.

Werman: Right, 1941. And Pearl Harbor must have changed a lot of the whole surveillance state, right?

Woolf: Exactly. All bets are off during World War II, because again, countries are fighting for their survival. But what you find here in the states in the aftermath of World War II is what's called "Operation Shamrock", a kind of precursor of the NSA, which is again, government agency cutting a deal with the major communications companies to introduce a massive, massively intrusive surveillance system, which lasts into the 1970s, when it was shut down amid huge hue and cry, and that's the time when modern rules and regulations were established, which obviously many people feel are out of date.

[Werman makes a telegraph sound]

Werman: Always wanted to do that. The World's history buff, Chris Wolf. And we'll be checking back with you, Chris, when our curiosity arises, which I've got to say is often. So thanks for getting the ball rolling with The World That Was.

Woolf: You're welcome.

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