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


Bell Telephone Switchboard

From by Becky Little:

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 VerizonFacebook, 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.

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