The public relations and legal battle between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple over the company’s use of encryption has put the focus on executive branch surveillance in a way not seen since Edward Snowden’s revelations almost three years ago. However, as the historical record demonstrates, the FBI’s domestic spying on the American public dates almost from the Bureau’s creation in July 1908. In the years that followed the FBI’s birth, other federal agencies–some civilian, some military–initiated their own warrantless domestic surveillance operations. Throughout this period, Congress was more frequently aiding and abetting this surveillance and repression, rather than preventing it or reining it in.
As the showdown between Apple and the FBI illustrates, what has changed is the technology used to accomplish the surveillance–technology that now gives federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to surreptitiously access the computers, smartphones, and even home appliances of tens of millions of Americans.
Today, the Cato Institute is launching a timeline that chronicles the history and implications of these developments: American Big Brother: A Century of Political Surveillance and Repression.
Too often, federal domestic surveillance of citizens was a prelude to government actions aimed at subverting civil society organizations opposed to American involvement in foreign wars, aiding conscientious objectors, advancing civil rights and political autonomy for people of color, the creation of labor unions, and even surveillance of candidates running for or holding office–including members of Congress and presidential contenders.
As political scientist Robert Justin Goldstein noted in his 1978 book, Political Repression in Modern America: 1870-1976, “American social scientists have not seriously considered political repression as one important factor which helps explain the narrowness of the American political spectrum…” Put differently, through the use of surveillance, agent provocateur’s, and outright violence, federal officials often decided what political views were or were not permissible to hold and practice in the American political system.