Creating Technology for Social Change

Surveillance in the Telegraph Era

This week in class we discussed how the telegraph started shaping communication after it was invented. My final project is about domestic surveillance, so I thought it would be interesting to look at what type of surveillance got dreamed up when we had just the telegraph.

Nowadays we are subject to PRISM, a surveillance program that allows agencies to query stored communication at various technology companies that match court-approved search terms. Back when we had the telegraph there was a similar program called Project SHAMROCK. The project involved accumulating all telegraphic signals that enter or exit the United States. This data got printed and passed down to law enforcement agencies, who sifted through it all to find evidence. It can be thought of as a physical manifestation of database querying we use nowadays to match search terms, except that comparison breaks down because the SHAMROCK investigators get to see a bunch of other communications in the search for information on an open investigation. By the 60’s they did actually have an electronic system for searching for keywords.

Similar to PRISM, Project SHAMROCK also depended on the cooperation of the companies that owned the telegraph lines, Western Union, RCA, and ITT. It got to be a big operation. At it’s peak it had 150,000 messages printed and analyzed every month. In the mid 70’s members of Congress started investigating the program so the director of the NSA terminated it. This resulted in the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is the legal framework that the NSA operates under nowadays.

Nowadays the focus of surveillance falls largely on terrorism. Who were the targets of Project SHAMROCK? History says Shamrock used “‘watch lists’ to electronically and physically spy on “subversive” activities by civil rights and antiwar leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Joan Baez—all members of Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘enemies list'” via