Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Civil War history buff, tells us about how the fine art of spying on your political and military enemies’ communications got started.

From President Bush’s 2005 acknowledgement that he signed an order allowing the NSA to listen to phone calls going overseas to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation of the scope of the NSA surveillance program, the topic of wiretapping has been at the forefront of US political consciousness for the last decade.And now the topic of wiretapping is in vogue once again due to recent claims by President Trump that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump tower during the most recent election cycle.

While the topic of wiretapping may seem to be a political conversation unique to the era of the War on Terror and its accompanying regime of mass surveillance, it turns out that this governmental practice is nearly as old as the US itself.

“Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans’ most private communications. Mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a huge privacy invasion. With concerns over cyber-security at an all-time high, this proposal will create even more security risks by mandating that our communications have a “backdoor” for government use, and will make our online communications even more vulnerable

In fact, the first instances of wiretapping pre-date the invention of the telephone by almost a decade, coinciding with the US Civil War and the increasing use of the telegraph. According to Tom Wheeler, former FCC Chairman and author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails, the Union’s heavy reliance on the telegraph—it built about 15,000 miles of telegraph lines, whereas the South only had about 500 miles of lines—was instrumental to its success on the battlefield. On the other hand, all of these telegraph lines created by Lincoln’s US Military Telegram Corps were also vulnerable to surveillance by the enemy.

During the Civil War, eavesdropping on a conversation required physically tapping into a telegraph or phone line with an extra wire to divert the signal to a third party. But sometimes, when wires weren’t available, wiretapping also bore some bodily risk.

“The best stories were during the Civil war when Confederate rangers such as John Mosby would cut the [telegraph] lines,” Wheeler told me. “Then a ranger would shimmy up the pole and hold the end of the line to his tongue to feel the pulses to read them out. Now, that’s a tap.”

Wheeler said he isn’t aware of any evidence that President Lincoln, who he described as an “early adopter” of telegraph technology, was ever the subject of wiretapping himself during the war, despite having personally sent hundreds of telegrams to Union generals.




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