US Mass Surveillance in Historic Perspective

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Tracing political spying by the US federal government back to 1908 and the establishment of the Bureau of Investigation, Aryeh Neier writes in the New York Review of Books that, “There is nothing new about political surveillance.” Though current revelations about the scope of National Security Agency spying on citizens differ from earlier precursors, “it is important to recognize that the older forms of surveillance persist.”

Washington’s Blog reports that “the NSA is doing what King George did to colonial Americans.” The article quotes Georgetown constitutional law professor Randy Barnett on how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court appears to have “secretly approved the blanket seizure of data on every American so this ‘metadata’ can later provide the probable cause for a particular search.”  According to Barnett, these indiscriminate data seizures are  “akin to the ‘general warrants’ issued by the Crown to authorize searches of Colonial Americans.”

The Washington’s Blog article also cites a memo by David Snyder, published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acknowledging that the founding fathers who gathered in 1791 to adopt the Bill of Rights might have been astounded by the NSA’s technology, but that they were certainly familiar with “the wholesale surveillance that the government is accused of doing today,” in the form of the “expansive abuse of power by King George II and III that invaded the colonists’ communications privacy.” With the Fourth Amendment, the founders took strong steps to end the authority of the government to conduct wholesale surveillance of ordinary Americans. “The question for us today,” Snyder writes, “is whether we’re going to give up on that American ideal, or whether we’re going to take the steps necessary to return to it.”

In a June 2013 article published by Global Research, James Petras observed that NSA spying on millions of citizens in the US and overseas goes “far beyond mere ‘violations of privacy’, as raised by many legal experts.” Instead, Petras wrote, “The essential question is:  What reprisals and sanctions follow from the ‘information’ that is collected, classified and made operational by these massive domestic spy networks?”  We must understand, he contended, the political and economic consequences of the NSA “spy state.”  “The bigger the secret police, the greater its operations. The more regressive  domestic economic policy, the greater the fear and loathing of the political elite.”


Aryeh Neier, “Spying on Americans: A Very Old Story,” New York Review of Books, June 18, 2013,

David Snyder, “The NSA’s ‘General Warrants’: How the Founding Fathers Fought an 18th Century Version of the President’s Illegal Domestic Spying,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, no date,

James Petras, “The Deeper Meaning of Mass Spying in America: Political and Economic Consequences of ‘The Spy State’”, Global Research, June 16, 2013,

“We’ve Know for Some Time that the NSA is Spying on Congress.” Washington’sBlog, January 8, 2014,

“500 Years of History Shows that Mass Spying is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent.” Washington’sBlog, January 9, 2014,

Student Researcher: Rubi Vazquez (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator:  Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)