Historical Context

Data for this project was collected and interpreted around three key historical events:

1975—Church Committee Hearings

We chose the Church Committee Hearings, which took place between 1975 and 1976, because this was one first instance of a governing power in the United States enacting a large scale surveillance program.

“The 1975–76 Church Committee congressional hearings probed widespread intelligence abuses by the FBI, CIA, IRS and NSA. Headed by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the committee exposed how under the guise of national security agencies spied on American citizens for political purposes during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

While the hearings focused on the FBI and CIA, they also catapulted the National Security Agency (NSA) from the shadows of the intelligence underworld to the national stage. The hearings revealed how the NSA set up secret projects code-named “Shamrock” and “Minaret” to collect international and domestic communications. In Project Shamrock, the major communication companies of the day—Western Union, RCA Global and ITT World Communications—provided the NSA access to their international message traffic, from which the NSA extracted telegrams containing the names provided to them by the FBI, CIA, and other sources. Church said the three-decade long program “certainly appears to violate section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934 as well as the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” (Epsley-Jones and Frenzel, 2007)

Epsley-Jones, K., & Frenzel, C. (2007, May 15). The Church Committee Hearings & the FISA Court. Retrieved April 21, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/homefront/preemption/churchfisa.html

2001—Passage of the Patriot Act

We chose the passage of the Patriot Act as a point of interest due to this being the first major large-scale surveillance program enacted in the United States this millennium and was touted as a means of protecting the American people.

“Hastily passed 45 days after 9/11 in the name of national security, the Patriot Act was the first of many changes to surveillance laws that made it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans by expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet. While most Americans think it was created to catch terrorists, the Patriot Act actually turns regular citizens into suspects.” (ACLU)

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Surveillance Under the Patriot Act. Retrieved April 21, 2016, from https://www.aclu.org/infographic/surveillance-under-patriot-act

2013—Edward Snowden NSA Leaks

We chose the Edward Snowden NSA Leaks as a focus point due to the political and social impact of the surveillance programs that were exposed.

“Edward Snowden is a 31 year old US citizen, former Intelligence Community officer and whistleblower. The documents he revealed provided a vital public window into the NSA and its international intelligence partners’ secret mass surveillance programs and capabilities. These revelations generated unprecedented attention around the world on privacy intrusions and digital security, leading to a global debate on the issue.

Snowden worked in various roles within the US Intelligence Community, including serving undercover for the CIA overseas. He most recently worked as an infrastructure analyst at the NSA, through a Booz Allen Hamilton contract, when he left his home and family in Hawaii to blow the whistle in May 2013. After travelling to Hong Kong, Snowden revealed documents to the American public on the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, which were shown to be operating without any public oversight and outside the limits of the US Constitution. The US government has charged Snowden with theft of government property, and two further charges under the 1917 Espionage Act. Each charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.” (The Courage Foundation)

The Courage Foundation. In Support of Edward Snowden. Retrieved April 21, 2016, from https://edwardsnowden.com/