Government Surveillance Before the Internet

By Sydney Butler / June 20, 2019

Ever since the world wide web became something that everyday people use as part of their lives, we've had to deal with government surveillance. Using the net to gather information about the people living within their borders.

However, government surveillance of the local population didn't start with the advent of mass internet adoption. It stretches back, far into recorded history. For anyone with an interest in the modern state of privacy and cyber-security, it definitely helps to understand the roots of government surveillance. So for this article, we'll be looking at government surveillance. How it changed over the ages. Before we made it super easy for them by inventing the internet.

Why Governments Surveillance Happens

Government surveillance refers to the act of gathering information about the people living under a given government, by that government. It's different from one nation performing espionage on another nation. Although the technologies and methods involved might be the same.

It's not hard to understand why one government would like to know what another government is up to. After all, the relationship between nation states is tense at best. Even between ostensible allies. When two governments are openly enemies, well then things really heat up on the spy front.

Surveillance at the Birth of the Republic

In order for there to be government surveillance, there needs to be some form of government. The Western concept of government really got legs with the Roman republic. Boy did those guys like spying on each other internally. At the end of the republic, with old Julius at the helm, there existed an elaborate spy network meant to keep Caesar informed so that challenges to his authority could be seen coming. That didn't work out for him, but many governments since have made sure to know what's being plotted within their own borders.

How exactly did they keep watch on commoners and important people? Well, by literally keeping an eye on them. Actual spies would have to insinuate themselves into society. These did not have to be career spies. Simply paying people to act as a source of information would be enough.

Intercepting communication was not uncommon either. Letters were couriered by people in ancient Rome. So robbing the letter en route isn't rocket science. One solution to this was shockingly modern - encryption. Substitution ciphers such as the Caeser Cipher could be used to protect the contents of a letter.

The Church Had Eyes

After Rome's fall then came the Roman Catholic Church, which was essentially a governing power all its own during the Middle Ages. A network of spies helped this government of governments know what was being plotted by whom. With the intention of stopping anything that posed a threat to the Church. This sort of thing went on for centuries. After kingdoms became geographical nation-states, their governments demonstrated that it was a lesson well-learned.

"Black Chambers" were employed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries to open and read mail without being detected. Governments of the day used such information from private correspondence. Bent to their own advantage and, of course, as a way to curb dissent.

The Cipher Bureau

Enigma Rotor Cipher

After the industrial revolution and as the information age began it's early infant cries, the tools available for government surveillance became more varied and powerful. People were beginning to communicate across long distances instantly. Radio, telephone, telegram and eventually video broadcasts revolutionized the pre-internet world.

Tapping phones and listening to radio broadcasts became standard practice. During wartime, mathematicians developed ciphers to prevent the enemy from gathering intelligence through intercepted transmissions. Ironically, engineers developed early computers as a response to this. Working against sophisticated mechanical encryption produced by the German Enigma machines. Pushing the technology that would underpin the digital web that spans the globe today.

Right after the First World War, pre-dating all the famous Enigma-related stuff, there was a precursor to the modern NSA in the form of the Cipher Bureau, also known as a "black chamber" to some. This organization went on to intercept coded domestic telegraph messages sent to embassies. They'd break the codes and then gather intelligence from those missives. The government shut down the Cipher Bureau before WW2. Thanks to ethical misgivings about what it was doing.

Cold Wars, Cold Eyes

After the Second World War ended, the victors divided the spoils between (largely) the US and the former USSR. Then we entered a new era of surveillance.

The most interesting and large scale surveillance happened on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain. However, the US government was doing plenty of surveillance on US soil as well. After all, there was an ever-present fear of what US socialists and communists might get up to. Government organizations like the FBI were keenly interested in any pro-Russian activity happening on US soil. The only way to keep a finger on that particular pulse is to watch the local population.

The recent smash hit Chernobyl miniseries offers us an impactful demonstration of this. In that story, Russian scientists assumed that they were being watched by the KGB. Over on the US side of things, we had the age of McCarthyism, which included surveillance by the FBI of people suspected of being communist or even gay.

A New Age of Surveillance

Before the advent and widespread adoption of the internet by the public, surveillance had to rely on mainly analog means to happen effectively. Mass surveillance, as we have it today, wasn't really feasible. Not without advanced computer technology. Now put to work to listen in on phone conversations and instantly recognize faces in crowds. We've written about how you can defend yourself against government surveillance in the past. However, the technologies that support mass surveillance are improving at a frightening rate. It's anyone's guess how far the eyes and ears of the state will reach in the future.

The history of government surveillance is rich and deep. Did we miss any of the most important points? Let us know in the comments. Lastly, we’d like to ask you to share this article online. And don’t forget that you can follow TechNadu on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!

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