History Technology

Whispering Wires: before the NSA, our legacy of wiretapping

It’s hard not to push the paranoia button when it comes to the Internet, even when you’re trying to speak rationally about it. There are just a lot of people in our world for whom unknown technology will always elicit the fears summoned by their favourite 70’s B-movies. And there are always plenty of people who are convinced that a President not elected by their vote must surely be looking to grind his axe on the unfaithful.

But while the fears of executive overreach is ever-present and routinely justified by history, they’re always based on a myopic focus on the present. In fact, we get the basis for our current debates about the legality of the NSA’s snooping programs from laws passed during Prohibition Era America. I was reminded of that this weekend when I rewatched the potent Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition.

Roy Olmstead was one of the more successful bootleggers in that era, and he was the victim of what at the time was a legal grey area: the tapping of telephone wires by Federal agents to listen in on his calls. By listening in to those calls, the Feds were able to hear all Olmstead’s plans, including communications between him and corrupt cops.

Olmstead was a well-recognized criminal and in our modern era, it would be a trivial matter to have obtained a wiretap warrant. But in his era, no warrant was necessary. At least in the view of the Federal Government, though many legal minds of the time disagreed, including Olmstead’s own lawyer.

To me, the upshot of this story is partially that the government will always grab for more power and more information than they have a right too. To some extent, this strikes me as logical and predictable. It is also that our democratic institutions withstood this overreach as it has many before it. A country that survived the Alien and Sedition Acts or the suspension of habeas corpus under Lincoln can right many wrongs.

And maybe it’s my post-Obama apolitical cynicism, but the biggest upshot to me is just how static and unoriginal the political response is to such a repetitive phenomenon. The only thing that changes is who the supporters and critics are, not their arguments:



By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.