When the Tech Industry Battles the Government

The fight between Apple and the FBI over access to a San Bernardino killer's iPhone isn't the first time industry and government have tangled over privacy and security. Every revolution in communications technology has sparked new battles over its use that changed the course of law enforcement, surveillance and civil liberties.

Here are a few famous cases that helped establish the rules that govern the government's access to our conversations and other personal details:

The Telegraph

The telegraph upended nineteenth-century notions of time and distance, making possible same-day -- and sometimes faster -- communication where previously it had taken days or weeks for a mailed letter to arrive by train or steamer. Its users, though, had little expectation of privacy. All messages passed through the hands of telegraph operators, and the telegrams themselves were easily accessible to government agents.

Many states had privacy laws forbidding the telegraph company to let others read a telegram meant for you, according to a Mississippi Law Journal article by Wesley MacNeil Oliver, a Duquesne University law professor. But it was far less clear what evidence the government needed to present a court to justify a wiretap.

Western Union, eager to let customers know it was looking out for their privacy, jumped at the opportunity to object to government subpoenas in the mid-to-late 1800s. The company would argue that the government's requests for information were too broad and that they were unreasonable searches not permitted by the Constitution.

The company's efforts helped set a standard for telegram subpoenas, Oliver wrote. For instance, the government had to provide a "reasonably accurate description of the paper wanted, either by its date, title, substance, or the subject it relates to," instead of just requesting an "indiscriminate search" for information contained in a broad swath of telegrams, he said.

The Telephone

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