Clear and Present Danger – Episode 37 – The History of Mass Surveillance, with Andreas Marklund


In 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden sent shockwaves through the American government when he leaked information exposing a number of vast mass surveillance programs providing the U.S. Government and its allies access to global digital communication networks.

The harvesting of data by world governments has been aided by vast data collection by big tech companies like Google and Facebook, whose business models rely on knowing more about their users than their users know about themselves. The combination of state and corporate mass surveillance of the digital sphere has obvious consequences for both freedom of expression and information.

Private conversations are rarely ever truly private and the centralization of communication platforms allows both governments and corporations to censor and control the flow of information. This development has changed public perception of the digital age from one of unlimited freedom, promise, and possibilities to one of cynicism, fear, and paranoia.

But the age of mass surveillance was not ushered in with the internet. In fact, just as it is today, in its infancy, mass surveillance was dominated by the leading liberal democracy of the day: Great Britain laid the foundation for the practice of mass surveillance at the outbreak of World War I. And, as in the 21st century, the issues that drove the push for mass surveillance and censorship at scale were national security and fears of extremism, disinformation, and propaganda.

With us to discuss the history of mass surveillance and its consequences for freedom of expression and information today is Andreas Marklund, head of research at Copenhagen’s ENIGMA Museum of Communication.

In this conversation we will explore:

  • How Britain built a system of mass surveillance during World War I through controlling and tapping global communication cables;
  • How Britain’s interception of the so-called Zimmermann Telegram changed the course of history;
  • How “fake news” and propaganda became a main concern and cause for censorship and manipulation of information by governments;
  • How news agencies like Reuters became involved in this communication war through the influence of the British Ministry of Information;
  • How telephone communications were systematically surveilled and censored in Scandinavia during World War I;
  • How mass surveillance and censorship justified by war became useful tools for more general surveillance;
  • How the development of radio caused panic among governments who could no longer control or access the flow of information across borders;
  • How, according to a secret report, Nazi Germany exploited mass surveillance “to give the government… such far-reaching insight into the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the entire German people as had never been known in all history;”
  • The similarities and differences between the mass surveillance systems built during World War I and those of today;
  • How mass surveillance differs in democracies and totalitarian states; and
  • Whether mass surveillance is an inevitable part of modern life, even in liberal democracies.

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

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