In late 19th century England, Herbert Joyce wrote a book about the history of the postal service entitled succinctly, The History of the Post Office from Its Establishment Down to 1836.
“As early as 1735, Members of Parliament had begun to complain that their letters bore evident signs of having been opened at the Post Office — alleging that such opening had become frequent and was becoming a matter of common notoriety … it transpired that in the Post Office there was a private office, an office independent of the Postmaster-General and under the immediate direction of the Secretary of State, which was expressly maintained for the purpose of opening and inspecting letters. It was pretended, indeed, that these operations were confined to foreign letters but, in the matter of fact, there was no such restriction… it was in June 1742 that these shameful facts became known through the report of a committee of the House of Commons.”
Communications, electronic or otherwise, have a long history of being intercepted by third parties — usually under the guise of “domestic security,” “protecting our business interests,” “protecting ourselves from ourselves,” etc. Our own National Security Agency was created in secret by President Truman on November 4th, 1952 — the same day his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was voted in to office. Its inception began much earlier in Truman’s Presidential career but was hardly the first organization of its kind in national or world history. The timing struck me as significant not only to the Korean War and Second Red Scare politics of the time but it also draws comparisons to our own recently departed lame duck that claims he did what was “necessary to protect this country.”
Those of us who have read James Bamford’s books about the history of the NSA were not surprised to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program or that it’d been around for some time before 9/11. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when convicted felon and former Qwest CEO, Joseph Nacchio, spilled the beans that he would not turn over his company’s communications records without a court order. Am I the only one that remembers when it was considered rude to spy on your neighbors? It was even made light of in 50s and 60s era sitcoms. Spies used to have codes of conduct but Joyce, David Kahn, and many others have written extensively about the history of governments that have spied on their own population for the greater good. That’s hardly cricket, eh, old chap?
While the 4th Amendment bears some text protecting our homes from unlawful search and seizure, our founding fathers (and mothers) were unaware of the upcoming inventions of the telegraph, the radio, satellites, and Facebook. But the right of privacy has a long history both in America and abroad — a history that may be traced four thousand years back to when Egyptian scribes began to subtly alter their heiroglyphs. A cuneiform tablet was once found in an archeological dig at the ancient city of Seleucia (about 30km SE of modern Baghdad along the Tigris river). This precious tablet bore an encrypted recipe for pottery glazes — written in cuneiform but with strange groups of vowels and consonants in order to protect its valuable trade secret.
But why should the average person care if their government is secretly reading their email, logging their phone calls, or intercepting their postcards from Auntie Sue? Public video cameras in the UK protect the population so why not snoop through my porn to see if any terrorists are secretly trading in weapons of mass orgasm? Should we believe that FBI’s COINTELPRO ended in 1971? Or was it merely parted out to less public organizations within the “shadow government’s” octopus of black chamber operations?
Will the Obama administration allay our worst fears? Who watches the watchmen? The X Files was a huge hit during the Clinton era — will shows like Fringe and Warehouse 13 be the equivalent pop culture paranoia for the masses during the current regime? Or will it be more drivel from the military industrial entertainment complex designed to distract us from the real covert operations being formulated and enacted every day? I’m sure there’s an entire warehouse of ideas waiting to be made in to pablum for the proletariat.
I don’t know about you but I’m inclined to agree with former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that “the wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Let’s hope that our vigilance will only strenghthen and that the new administration will fulfill their promise that change has come to America in an era of new responsibility.
Your comrade in cognitus en crypto,