Communications Companies Have Been Spying on You Since the 19th CenturyBreaking News
tags: facebook, privacy, surveillance, Cambridge Analytica
In the late 19th century, the Western Union Telegraph Company held a monopoly over the country’s telecommunications. At the time, electric telegraphs were a new, innovative technology that allowed people to send messages over great distances much faster than the mail system could, kind of like an early version of email.
During the Civil War, generals used telegraphs to communicate with each other. But they also intercepted morse code messages sent by rivals, or sent out morse code signals with disinformation meant to deceive the enemy. Some private individuals figured out how to do this, too. In 1864, a stockbroker named D.C. Williams became the first person convicted of wiretapping after he intercepted corporate messages and sold them to stock traders.
Yet there was an even simpler way to monitor these messages. Western Union always made at least two copies of the telegraphs it transcribed: one for the recipient, and another to keep on file. To see the copy on file, all you had to do to was have a contact inside the company.
This is what happened during the contested 1876 presidential election between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Early results favored Tilden, but in an effort to prevent Hayes from conceding, Western Union (which was pro-Hayes) decided to leak a telegram to the New York Times (also pro-Hayes). The telegram revealed that Democrats weren’t yet certain they had won. The New York Times shared this information with the GOP, which decided to keep pushing for a Hayes victory, writes Tim Wu in his book, The Master Switch.
In the end, Hayes lost the popular vote and won the electoral college by only one vote. But the results were contested for several months, and led Congress to subpoena Western Union telegrams from both parties—an early instance of the federal government asking a private communications company to turn over multiple records.
Telephones, too, provided new opportunities for surveillance, says Brian Hochman, an American studies professor at Georgetown University who is writing a forthcoming book about the history of U.S. wiretapping. With the participation of Bell Telephone Company, another monopoly, “wiretapping becomes a kind of common law enforcement tool starting in the Prohibition Era,” he says.
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