I'm close to wrapping up my latest book, Hiding Behind the Keyboard. One of the more interesting things I found while researching the electronic surveillance chapter is a historical note of massive electronic surveillance...way back in the early 1890s.
Considering that government surveillance is one of the hottest topics today, no doubt brought into the spotlight by Edward Snowden, I found this one historical bit of surveillance in New York to be a reminder that electronic surveillance has been around much longer than what the average person may know.
Before getting into the New York Police massive surveillance story, you should know that wiretapping has been around as long as communicating electronically has existed. For example, as soon as the telegraph was used, the telegraph communications were intercepted. During the Civil War, a "wire tapper" was an actual job in the war to intercept telegraphs! But that's not what I mean in regards to mass goverment surveillance. The New York Police Department's history with wiretaps is what I found to be really interesting, even more interesting than the NSA surveillance disclosures.
In short, back in the late 1800s, New York made wiretapping a felony but the NYPD believed they were above this law. They tapped people at whim and without warrants, including tapping Catholic priests.
In fact, NYPD quickly discovered that they could tap into any phone line of the New York Telephone Company, at anytime to listen to any person on the line. They even tapped into hotels to listen to hotel any guest.
Obviously, this free-wheeling phone tapping ended after the Supreme Court decided that the Fourth Ammendent protected "intangles" such as communications when it was previously believed that only "tangibles" were protected against unreasonable search and seizure. However, the NYPD experience shows that when given unfettered access to monitoring and surveillance, government can go too far with good or bad intentions.
The solution to prevent going too far is simple. Get a warrant. Smart government employees know that a warrant protects the people and the employee's career. For anyone to say warrants are difficult, impossible, or too burdonsome simply has not written an affidavit for a warrant or just doesn't have the probable cause in the first place (or may be lazy....). Warrants are easy to write if you have probable cause. In fact, some warrants don't even need to be written for approval as a recorded phone call to a judge can get you a telephonic warrant approved in less than half an hour or faster.
For those against any government surveillance, such as wiretaps or pen registers, as long as there is a warrant, there really isn't any problem. The Constitution and state or federal laws that approve wiretaps require that the searches not be unreasonable or unnecessary (meaning, there must be cause). Technically, it is almost as easy as flipping a switch, but practically, it takes takes an investigation to develop probable cause that a crime exists in the first place. No crime = no probable cause = no warrant.
As a disclaimer to my personal experiences, I have initiated and supported dozens of wiretaps, pen registers, trap and traces, hidden cameras, GPS installations, body wires, and bugs during my time in criminal investigations. I've had probable cause every single time, so much so, that PC dripped out of my investigation binders. And with that, I'm not a fan of unfettered, massive government surveillance without cause...