U.S. History of Spying on Citizens

U.S. History of Spying on Citizens

When George Orwell penned his classic novel, 1984, about an ever-present Big Brother that watches your every move, many people considered it paranoia and conspiracy theory. And, let’s face it, Orwell was wrong. Big Brother didn’t start watching our every move until the 21st Century. He missed the mark by 17 years. But the U.S. government has been marching toward a totalitarian monitoring system since the very first “wiretap.” Here’s a brief look at how we fell under the watchful eye of a democratically elected government.

The Black Chamber

Considered a precursor to the modern NSA, the Black Chamber project was orchestrated by famed Army codebreaker Herbert O. Yardly during the 1920s. He came up with the idea of monitoring international telegraphs in the interest of U.S. national security.
Communications companies such as Western Union were more than happy to turn over private correspondences to Black Chamber. Ironically, Yardly became the first major whistleblower after being defunded. He published a book called The American Black Chamber, exposing the organization’s abuses of public trust.

Operation SHAMROCK

During World War II, the military enjoyed legal access to the flow of foreign-originated information through companies such as RCA, Global, ITT and Western Union. The caveat was that SHAMROCK didn’t let the communications giants know they were limited to foreigners, so, they monitored Americans, too. When the war ended, the entire practice became illegal. However, SHAMROCK agents didn’t stop listening. In 1952, SHAMROCK was dismantled and, ironically, a little-known group called the NSA took over.


The spying agency flew under the American public’s radar until 1975, when Senate hearings outed its existence over potential misconduct. Then NSA director Lew Allen Jr. pointed to a law giving the agency covert spying authority without disclosure. During the Church Committee hearings, he basically told Congress the NSA could do as it pleased and didn’t need a warrant to do it. A backlash from the hearings prompted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which created the kangaroo courts that currently dole out secret FISA warrants to legalize spying on Americans.

The USA Patriot Act

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress fast-tracked legislation to provide spy agencies with the tools to “intercept and obstruct terrorism.” President George W. Bush signed the law on Oct. 26, with the understanding it would expire and restore individual privacy. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed an extension designed to allow limited spying through wiretaps, business record searches and on lone wolf terror suspects. The law was supposed to expire again in 2015.

USA Freedom Act

As the Patriot Act expired, Congress pushed through the Freedom Act that buoyed parts of government spying tactics, but banned the NSA from mass data mining of U.S. citizens. Basically, legal spying on Americans was extended another four years by President Obama.

Barack Obama: Spy?

During President Obama’s time in the White House, he was cited for spying on private citizens numerous times.

  • In 2010, the Obama Administration seized the phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen and his parents. The FISA warrant application claimed the journalist was a criminal “co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act.
  • In 2012, Obama’s Justice Department covertly subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press journalists.
  • In 2015, U.S. Rep. Chaffetz chaired an investigation into a scandal about Obama’s Secret Service. An agent retaliated by hacking the agency’s database and circulating Chaffetz’ attempt to previously get a job with the Secret Service in an effort to embarrass the Congressman.
  • Again in 2015, the NSA was discovered to have spied on Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after opposing Obama’s controversial Iran Nuclear Deal. Obama also sent U.S. taxpayer money to help defeat Netanyahu’s re-election.
  • In 2017, Pres. Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Edward Snowden

The former cyberspy took refuge in Russia after disclosing troves of information about America’s mass mining private correspondences of its own citizens and those around the globe. He initially entered the U.S. Army Reserve to serve in the Special Forces. His reasoning should have been a red flag for the CIA and NSA. He said he wanted to “help free people from oppression.” After an Army injury, he went into the CIA. In 2013, Snowden took work as an NSA subcontractor, where he became a trusted asset and discovered mass personal data mining and privacy abuses. Within months, he exposed the mass surveillance by the U.S. government.

Julian Assange & WikiLeaks

Driven by a mission to expose criminal and immoral activities by governments and powerful individuals worldwide, WikiLeaks dropped a CIA treasure trove in March, 2017. Nearly 8,000 pages outline the CIA playbook for hacking and surveillance. The revelations demonstrate that the spy agency has actively expanded its capabilities to privately-owned electronic devices such as Smartphones, televisions and self-driving vehicles. They have the ability to activate common electronic devices for audio and video recording. Simply put, when you talk on the phone, send an email or just Netflix and chill, Big Brother is watching.