The secret (and sinister) history of American surveillance

Our modern-day surveillance state dates back to the 1870s, when a new technology launched an information revolution

Published October 24, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on

From cellphone spying to facial scanning technology to massive data farms, it’s no secret that the U.S. government is gathering loads of personal information on its citizens.

But few remember the origins of our modern surveillance state. Some argue that it was forged over 115 years ago, half a world away in the Philippine Islands.

The story begins in the mid-1870s, when a technological renaissance catapulted America into its first information revolution. Thomas Edison’s quadruplex telegraph and Philo Remington’s typewriter allowed data to be recorded accurately and transmitted quickly. Inventions such as the electrical tabulating machine and the Dewey Decimal System could count, catalog and retrieve huge amounts of information efficiently. Photography was becoming widely accessible, thanks to George Eastman’s roll film, and biometric criminal identification systems such as fingerprinting were adopted from Europe. Our ability to manage, store and transmit data grew by leaps and bounds.

When the U.S. occupied the Philippines in 1898, these inventions became the building blocks for a full-scale surveillance state that was used to suppress Filipino resistance.

According to historian Alfred McCoy, who has written extensively on this topic, Capt. Ralph Van Deman – dubbed “the father of U.S. military intelligence” – masterminded a security apparatus that compiled “phenomenally detailed information on thousands of Filipino leaders, including their physical appearance, personal finances, landed property, political loyalties, and kinship networks.” The system ended up indexing 70 percent of Manila’s entire population.

This total information control coupled with laws such as the Sedition Act, which severely punished anyone who engaged in “subversive” political activity, allowed the governor-general of the islands, William Howard Taft, to manipulate and blackmail anyone at will.

Years later, the colonial policing used in the Philippines was refined and adapted to be used domestically in the U.S. The first example, McCoy notes, was shortly after America entered World War I.

At the time, rapidly growing labor strikes and radical groups were fueling a public hysteria of immigrants and leftists. This was the first Red Scare. The 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act punished political “subversion.” Postmaster General Alfred S. Burleson banned virtually the entire anti-war and socialist press. Van Deman’s military intelligence division collaborated with groups such as the American Protective League to collect more than a million pages of surveillance reports on German Americans in 14 months. By 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and a young J. Edgar Hoover had arrested more than 10,000 people in mass raids around the country. Scandal erupted when the public learned that most of the arrested were not foreign immigrants, but U.S. citizens. In the end, public outrage forced Uncle Sam to curb domestic surveillance, and the State Department’s cryptography unit was abolished.

Many have pointed out the cyclical nature of American domestic surveillance. First, a real or imagined crisis such as communism or terrorism gets perceived as a threat to national security. To combat these dangers, U.S. leaders develop new surveillance technologies, clandestinely using it on innocent civilians. Often, the government’s first targets and scapegoats are society’s most marginalized groups. FBI Director Hoover’s COINTELPRO, for instance, infiltrated the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement and anti-Vietnam War organizations by using illegal wiretapping, mail opening and undercover informants. When these invasive spy operations are exposed, as they were after the Palmer Raids and Watergate scandal, laws are passed to prevent future trampling of citizens’ rights.

The scapegoats and government agencies doing the spying may change over time, but in the U.S., the pattern of domestic surveillance has generally been the same. That is, until recently.

Mass surveillance today is far less expensive and labor intensive than it used to be. The rate at which technology is growing also has completely outstripped current laws that regulate use of such technologies. It’s problematic because so much of this surveillance is opaque. Take, for instance, government aerial surveillance. After the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, some people noticed small, low-flying planes circling above protesters. Later, the Associated Press reported that the surveillance equipment on these sorts of planes were used “without a judge’s approval” and that fictitious companies were used as fronts by the FBI to fly these planes.

Details about the use of cellphone-spying technology, often generically called “stingrays,” also are shrouded in secrecy. Stingrays are capable of scanning all cellphones in the area in which they are being used, not just target phones. Harris Corp., which manufactures this technology, requires law enforcement agencies that use stingrays to sign legal agreements preventing them from saying anything about it, even in court. Some states, the most recent one being California, are taking action, requiring police to get warrants if they want to use stingrays in investigations.

Government surveillance increasingly depends on private companies to handle sensitive information, which is a worrisome trend. Companies such as Amazon Web Services provide cloud computing infrastructure for intelligence-related government agencies. Palantir Technologies Inc. analyzes mountains of data, helping agencies including the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI and local governments identify suspicious trends and connect the dots among known criminals.

It’s good to keep in mind that companies such as Google and Facebook ultimately serve their bottom line and not the public. In short, private companies may be essential to helping Uncle Sam collect data, but how beholden to them do we want government to become?


By Ariane Wu


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cybersecurity Nsa Reveal News Surveillance Video