Constructing telegraph lines during the civil war. Image: National Archives

Wiretapping Is as American as Apple Pie

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.

|
Mar 26 2017, 5:00pm

Constructing telegraph lines during the civil war. Image: National Archives

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.

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.

Read More: Could President Trump Really Turn the NSA Into a Personal Spy Machine?

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."

Lincoln's Telegraph Key

Lincoln's Telegraph Key. Image: White House Historical Association

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.

Nevertheless, many Union telegrams were intercepted by Confederate soldiers, although the cipher used to code the messages was never broken. According to Wheeler, Confederate forces were so desperate to crack the Union code that they used to publish the intercepted messages in Southern newspapers to crowdsource possible solutions.

Wiretapping has profoundly shaped the course of American history from its earliest uses during the Civil War to its use to catch Prohibition-era gangsters to the widespread surveillance of Civil Rights leaders during the 1960s. In many ways, wiretapping is as American as baseball or apple pie, but that's not a good reason to reconsider its legitimacy in the 21st century.

Subscribe to pluspluspodcast, Motherboard's new show about the people and machines that are building our future

Stories