There is something disquieting and unwholesome about telecoms feeding our communications to government agencies. It was headline news, again, last month when we learned that AT&T has had a longstanding partnership with the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, this form of private-public intelligence collusion is neither new nor, in my view, illegal. Whether it is immoral is an entirely separate question.
U.S. communications carriers first became partners in the intelligence game shortly after World War I. Diplomatic and military affairs transmitted via telegram to home countries were intercepted and decrypted by the Black Chamber, the NSA’s precursor. Obtaining telegrams then was eerily similar to how communications are obtained today: The government simply asked.
The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Postal Telegraph Company allowed intelligence officers to copy telegrams, and this partnership persisted in peacetime. In 1929, however, Secretary of State Henry Stimson defunded the Black Chamber. His concise, and seemingly naïve, rationale reportedly being: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”