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How Lincoln used the telegraph office to spy on citizens long before the NSA

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Utah telegraph house
Utah telegraph house

Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA, PRISM, and the US government's broad surveillance tactics were shocking to many people — but maybe they shouldn't have been. There's plenty of precedent, says David T. Z. Mindich for the New York Times, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. In 1862, Lincoln authorized sweeping control over the American telegraph infrastructure for Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war. Telegraphs were re-routed through his office, and Stanton used his power to spy on Americans, arrest journalists, and even control what was or wasn't sent. It was a critical tool in wartime, but a massive invasion of privacy that surely angered citizens.

Mindich argues that despite the huge differences in scope and technology, the Lincoln-era example is a neat comparison to the current war on terror. For those that take issue with the current NSA procedures, he says, the only real solution is to end the war — that's the only way Stanton's grasp of the telegraphs was loosed. "As the war ended, the emergency measures were rolled back. Information — telegraph and otherwise — began to flow freely again." Until this war is over, Mindich cautions, invasive governmental overreaching is a fact of life; whether it's Western Union or Microsoft, Lincoln or Obama, that's how it's always been.