The government has watched your phone calls since the 1890s

Alexander Graham Bell places the first telephone call ever, in 1892, from New York to Chicago.
Alexander Graham Bell places the first telephone call ever, in 1892, from New York to Chicago.

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

So, you may have been hearing a lot of public outrage over the fact that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting data on United States citizens from their Verizon phone records. Both President Barack Obama and the NSA have certainly gotten a lot of heat over it!

The story broke after a guy named Edward Snowden, who was doing some technical work for the NSA, leaked top-secret information to the British newspaper, The Guardian. It turns out that the NSA is collecting data from phone records under a program called PRISM. However, the NSA Director, Michael Hayden, says they only look closely at your info if the courts give them permission and if you’ve been in contact with potential terrorists. Basically, he’s saying the NSA isn’t just sitting back with a bag of popcorn while they read your texts.

Now, some people are calling Snowden a traitor to the US for betraying our security, while others say he’s a heroic freedom fighter for privacy rights. Whatever opinion you have about him or the NSA, here’s something to consider: the government, under Democrats and Republicans alike, has been watching your phone calls since the 1890s. What?! Yes. This is not some brand new issue, although many less informed people might think it is. Consider yourself better informed, now! While modern technology allows the US government much wider access to information, the practice of wiretapping – getting access to phone calls – began soon after the invention of the telephone. See, phone calls used to have to go through human telephone operators, making it very easy for the government to snoop on us.

In 1928, the Supreme Court – the highest court in the US – actually approved wiretapping for federal (government) agents, and said they could even use private telephone conversations as evidence. This power was granted in the court case Olmstead v. United States and wasn’t dialed back until 1967 in the court case Katz v. United States.

The "all-seeing eye" symbol on the US dollar.
The “all-seeing eye” symbol on the US dollar.

In 1945, Project SHAMROCK – a name that sounds like some kind of secret Lucky Charms spy network –  began getting copies of up to 150,000 messages a day that people were sending into and out of the country. Get this, though. This program was 100% top secret for 30 YEARS until it was exposed in 1975, and then shut down. Even Martin Luther King was watched at home and his office by the FBI from 1963-1966, and nobody found out until three weeks after his assassination.

In 1968, the first federal law to restrict wiretapping (finally!) was issued in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. However, this restriction still allowed the President to order wiretapping, which caused some trouble for Republican President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon in 1974 when he tried to wiretap the headquarters of the Democrats in the Watergate Scandal and then lied about it.

In 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was signed into law by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. It is FISA, which was updated in 2006 with the Terrorist Surveillance Act and in 2007 with the Protect America Act, that’s causing some headache today. It allows electronic surveillance without a court order, so long as the President approves it!

In 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) tried to make it tougher for the government to check our e-mails, web pages, cell phones, and more, but as the New York Times pointed out in a 2011 article, companies like Google, Facebook, and Verizon talk about how often they’re asked by the government for information on people. It makes the ECPA look like it doesn’t have any bite to back up its bark.

In 1995, the first court-ordered internet wiretapping happened, when a man named Julio Ardita tried to use Harvard computers to access government sites. Authorities were allowed to identify and arrest Ardita, who ultimately confessed his guilt in 1998.

In 2001, after the traumatizing events of the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attack, the Patriot Act was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush. It changed FISA and ECPA to make it possible for a suspect – someone suspected of a crime – to be wiretapped, rather than just their particular device. Democratic President Barack Obama signed an extension of this permission in 2011.

As you can tell by now, this whole government surveillance thing has been supported by both Republican and Democratic Presidents.

Soon, the whistleblowers – someone who “blows the whistle” on a company or organization they believe is committing a wrong – started coming out. In 2001, a man named William Binney, who used to work for the NSA, quit when he heard about the monitoring of US citizens. He started exposing what goes on behind closed doors and criticized the government.

In 2005, the New York Times exposed wiretapping without warrants – permission from the court – of US citizens by the NSA.

In 2009, the New York Times exposed wiretapping that goes beyond the law by, you guessed it, the NSA. Rather than causing them to pull back on their efforts, two months later, the PRISM program added Facebook to its data collection targets, which already included Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo!

New York Times headquarters in New York.
New York Times headquarters in New York.

In 2012, the New York Times reported that law enforcement agencies were asking for TONS of subscriber information from cell phone carriers like Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T.

Fast-forward to now, in 2013, and we have the current NSA “Metadata” collection of Verizon reports, which includes how long someone talked on the phone, where they called from, as well as the date and time. It represents the first direct proof that the Obama administration is involved in domestic surveillance.

Phew! So, if you managed to make it this far, consider yourself better informed about the US government’s history of monitoring citizen communications. As you can see, it’s been going on for over a hundred years, and while the laws have gone through some ups and downs, the government’s been watching you for quite a while. Whether that’s right or wrong, I leave it up to you to decide. Now, however, you can at least weigh the evidence and decide whether national security and citizen privacy can ever really get along! After all, the government claims they only watch us to catch the bad guys, like terrorists, and that they’ve prevented over 50 terrorist attacks with this surveillance program.