By Thomas Scott
When first I read about PRISM, as well as other programs whose details were leaked by Edward Snowden, I was not surprised.
PRISM, for the uninitiated, was the name of the effort on the part of the National Security Agency to collect millions of Americans’ personal data through mass electronic surveillance and collaboration with leading technology firms.
The United States government has engaged in this type of espionage, in one way or another, for close to a century.
The first instance in which the government aggregated private communications began shortly after World War I.
Operated by what was then called the Cipher Bureau, the office was known as the Black Chamber and its initial purpose was to monitor the private communications of foreign government officials.
The clandestine organization even persuaded one of the leading telecommunications firms of the day, Western Union, to let the U.S government tap into its telegraph service in order to eavesdrop on foreign communiqués.
Henry Stimson shut down the program in 1929 after asserting, “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
Despite this initial setback, surveillance of telegrams began anew during World War II.
This culminated in the development of project SHAMROCK in August of 1945.
The primary goal of SHAMROCK was to copy and disseminate every telegram coming into and going out of the country.
After its founding in 1952, the NSA became responsible for the physical interception of telegrams again with the cooperation of Western Union, in addition to Radio Corporation of America and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.
Instead of the modern day datacenters that constitute the backbone of PRISM, telegrams were recorded on microfilm and passed along to members of the intelligence community, such as the CIA and FBI.
At the program’s peak, the NSA collected and picked apart an estimated 150,000 telegrams each month.
Much like modern day Tweets or texting, which confine the message to 140 and 160 characters respectively, most telegrams were limited to 150 characters in length.
Messages were converted to a system known as Morse code, which consists of short bursts, called dots, and long bursts, called dashes.
Telegraphy was the equivalent of World Wide Web to people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because it was a technology that shrunk the world.
By 1902 for example, Great Britain was linked to all of her colonies via telegraph, through what was referred to as the All Red Line.
During the Church Committee hearings, Senator Frank Church remarked that project SHAMROCK was most likely “the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken” up to that point.
During MINARET, which ran from 1967 to 1973 alongside SHAMROCK, the NSA wiretapped the phones of 1,650 American citizens, who had been placed on so-called watch lists by members of the intelligence community.
Monitored people included figures such as Frank Church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Jane Fonda.
MINARET also eavesdropped on the phone calls of 5,925 foreign nationals.
In 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed by Congress in an effort to reign in the agency’s excesses by limiting its ability to eavesdrop on people within the United States.
If there is one idea that you, the reader, should take away from this article, it is that domestic electronic surveillance is nothing new and has continued to grow despite efforts to prevent it from penetrating into our everyday lives.
If that last part doesn’t bother you, perhaps you’ll agree with the Domestic Surveillance Directorate of the NSA’s motto, which states that: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”