Back when spies played by the rules
Regulations called for postal secrecy in 1532 and 1573 in Austria's Tyrol, in Prussia in 1685, in the oath of succession taken in 1690 by the Holy Roman emperor Joseph I and in his postal regulation of 1698. Rulers ignored them. Like Britain's Oliver Cromwell, who saw the post as "the best means to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs against the Commonwealth," they justified letter-opening.
It sometimes worked. In 1723, Bishop Francis Atterbury was exiled, partly on the basis of intercepted letters, for trying to put a pretender on Britain's throne. Monarchs got information from their "black chambers" - secret rooms in post offices in main cities into which the mail was brought for opening.
London's was in Abchurch Lane, near St. Paul's. Black chambers resembled laboratories. Kettles spouted steam to soften wax seals. Experts took impressions of seals with a soft amalgam to make new ones in case they broke the originals while sliding hot wires under them. Specialists slid thin batons with a long slit into envelopes and twirled letters around them so they could be extracted without breaking the seals.
Austria's black chamber was reputed to be the most efficient. Sacks of diplomatic mail arrived at 7 a.m., the letters unsealed and read, the important parts copied, sometimes by dictation, the letters replaced and resealed and sent to the embassies by 9:30. The employees sometimes erred, however. When the British ambassador in Austria complained that he was getting copies instead of originals, the prime minister, Metternich, coolly replied, "How clumsy these people are!"
But the public knew about the letter-opening and hated it. The pre-revolutionary French assembly, the Estates-General, received complaints from all regions of France and from all classes of society about this invasion of their thoughts. A month after the fall of the Bastille, Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man held that citizens may write with freedom - in effect nullifying the right of the government to read letters. In the United States, the 1792 law establishing the Post Office forbade its agents from illegally opening the mail entrusted to it. This grew out of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches. Of course, judges could issue warrants to read letters, just as they could allow law officials to enter a house.
Curiously, an absolutist monarchy was the first state to enact a law specifically punishing letter-opening. "Whoever opens the letter of another without his will and without special permission faces three to 14 days of prison," read Article 1370 of Prussia's General Law of 1794. Other states of Germany and elsewhere in Europe followed.
British laws in 1711 and 1837 empowered the government to issue warrants to read mail. Then, in 1844, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, during a stay in England, learned that his letters had been opened without a proper warrant. Parliament exploded. The great historian Macauley defied the government to differentiate "between a letter of his being taken from him when in the post office and a letter taken out of his desk." Britons, he said, "would rather take the risk of great crimes being committed, than owe their security to that system or those means, which would destroy the manly spirit of the people, on which more reliance could be placed than all the schemes and decrees that could be invented for maintaining their greatness and independence as a nation." The uproar was channeled into a long report, and the liberal winds of the 1840's blew down the black chambers in Britain and most of the Continent.
Throughout the 20th century, many nations (including the United States) continued to intercept diplomats' messages, but most seem to have stopped reading their citizens' mail. Not totalitarian governments, though. Article 128 of the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union guaranteed the privacy of correspondence, but the Soviet government read private mail. And although Germany's Weimar Constitution declared in Article 117 that "Privacy of correspondence, of mail ... are inviolable," Hermann Göring's intelligence bureau eavesdropped on conversations from a converted Berlin apartment house whose basement housed ranks of clattering teletypewriters.
After World War II, nations paid at least lip service to letter secrecy. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by many countries, holds that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his ... correspondence." Not all keep their word.
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