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23 September, 2015

After a century of mass government surveillance, it’s time for new limits

There is something disquieting and unwholesome about telecoms feeding our communications to government agencies. It was headline news, again, last month when we learned that AT&T has had a longstanding partnership with the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, this form of private-public intelligence collusion is neither new nor, in my view, illegal. Whether it is immoral is an entirely separate question.

U.S. communications carriers first became partners in the intelligence game shortly after World War I. Diplomatic and military affairs transmitted via telegram to home countries were intercepted and decrypted by the Black Chamber, the NSA’s precursor. Obtaining telegrams then was eerily similar to how communications are obtained today: The government simply asked.

The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Postal Telegraph Company allowed intelligence officers to copy telegrams, and this partnership persisted in peacetime. In 1929, however, Secretary of State Henry Stimson defunded the Black Chamber. His concise, and seemingly naïve, rationale reportedly being: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

World War II exigencies overruled Stimson’s moral objections and the United States resumed telegram interception. Starting in 1945, just after the end of the war, this interception widened, and Western Union, RCA, and ITT provided the government, via the NSA and its predecessors the Army Security Agency and the Armed Forces Security Agency, with paper tape, microfilm, and later magnetic tape copies of most international telegrams. This continued unabated for decades after the war and was known as Project SHAMROCK.

NSA shared this data with law enforcement, including the FBI and Secret Service. Project SHAMROCK, however, suffered from classic function creep, the gradual extension of a system beyond the purposes for which it was conceived. In the 1960s and 1970s, names of American citizens and organizations were added to watch lists. Anti-war activists, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhummad Ali, and Jane Fonda were among the nearly 1,700 U.S. individuals and organizations targeted for domestic surveillance. This was known as Project MINARET.

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