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Communications Companies Have Been Spying on You Since the 19th Century

March 26, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

A 1944 photo of the device used by Western Union which translates a telegram into holes on a tape, and then passes it along to the box-like apparatus. (Credit: AP Photo)

The revelation that a shady political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica accessed data from 50 million Facebook users without their consent has rekindled debates about privacy and surveillance. Shortly after this news broke in March 2018, Americans also learned that Facebook had pulled years of call and text data from users who accessed the site on Google’s Android phones.

America has gone through this before. In 2001, the Patriot Act broadened the government’s ability to monitor Americans’ phone, email, and online records, sparking fears that the government would use this data to spy on its citizens. And in 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed those fears by revealing that the U.S. collected data on Americans from Verizon, Facebook, Google, and other companies, even if the subjects weren’t directly under investigation.

But what some Americans may not realize is that the government was using private communications companies to monitor citizens long before the Patriot Act—over a century before, in fact.

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.

A 1944 photo of the device used by Western Union which translates a telegram into holes on a tape, and then passes it along to the box-like apparatus. (Credit: AP Photo)

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 …read more

Source: HISTORY

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