Policy Papers

Surveillance, privacy and history

David Vincent |

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Executive Summary

  • The postal espionage crisis of 1844 sparked the first panic over the privacy of citizens, and offers lessons from history for those grappling with the Edward Snowden revelations about the surveillance of digital communication.
  • The narratives of national liberty coincided with structures of national power in the nineteenth century. Now there is growing tension between the rights of British citizens and transnational processes of communication and surveillance.
  • The current controversy is generated by the collision between security and privacy expectations. It cannot be treated merely as a problem for the Foreign Office. The Government needs to generate a response which engages with both the conduct of espionage and the rapidly changing practices of digital communication.
  • Secrecy about secrecy in the conduct of state surveillance can only be defended by an appeal to 'honourable secrecy', which no longer has the credibility it assumed in the nineteenth century.
  • The more recent past suggests that the conditions for explosions of public concern over systems of state surveillance are widely present, and that the intervals between panics are shortening.
  • 'The statistical measurement of communication behaviour' from postal flows to Facebook traffic began with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. This form of counting provides objective and challenging evidence of the actual impact of privacy crises.
  • The lack of change in people's communications behaviour in the 1840s suggests privacy crises today may not alter the massive flow of digital messaging between individuals.


In the surveillance of private communication almost everything is history. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of state interception exposed the obsolescence of current legal safeguards. In Britain the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, which gave legal underpinning to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for the first time, and the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), have been overtaken by the rise of search engines and the social media and accompanying developments in digital systems and software. The late twentieth century is a far away country and the world before the computer beyond sight or meaning.

It may be argued however that the characteristics of the current controversy were established at the beginning of the modern state and mass communication in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The 1830s saw the Great Reform Act and the first wave of railway building. In 1840 the government slashed the cost of postage to a penny irrespective of distance, and introduced pre-payment to speed the process of delivery. The intention was to democratise correspondence, stabilising a society disrupted by urbanisation, promoting the exchange of the information necessary for a fluid industrialising economy, and creating demand for universal literacy. Four years later what Torrens McCullagh Torrens, the biographer of the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, called a ‘paroxysm of national anger' exploded when the government was caught opening letters in the interests of national security. It was the political scandal of 1844, permanently scarring the career of the Minister and recalled at intervals down the decades until new regimes of surveillance were introduced around the time of the First World War, such as the 1911 Official Secrets Act.

The 1844 postal espionage crisis contained in embryo all the main features of the international controversy that was ignited in June 2013 by the exposure of the surveillance practices of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) acting in conjunction with other national agencies, including GCHQ. Five aspects of the event, in particular, can help clarify the dynamics of the present situation and the room for manoeuvre of governments and their critics. These are the interaction between privacy and secrecy, the management of secrecy, the boundaries of the state, the nature of privacy panics and the behaviour of consumers.

Privacy and secrecy

The initial controversy was purely political. The Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, who had been chased across Europe to Britain by the Austrian Government, suspected that his correspondence with radical sympathisers in London was being opened by the Post Office. He placed poppy seeds and grains of sand in the envelopes, and when they arrived empty, he caused the MP Thomas Duncombe to raise a complaint in Parliament. But as soon as the issue became public (Hansard had been put on general sale six years earlier) it was rapidly connected to wider currents of change. Sir James Graham behaved throughout as if he was dealing merely with a problem of national security. It was his critics who better understood why the timing of the exposure was so important. The Law Magazine observed in 1845 that:

The great boon which has been conferred upon the public by the recent alteration of the post-office system, and the introduction of railway communication, by which cheapness, dispatch and certainty of delivery, have been so effectually carried out, will be much impaired by a sense of insecurity in the transit of letters. The post-office must not only be CHEAP AND RAPID, but SECURE AND INVIOLABLE.

The introduction of the pre-paid, flat-rate Penny Post in 1840 was designed to expand the realm of virtual privacy. Through cheap, secure correspondence it would be possible to maintain and extend relationships over distance between friends, lovers or separated family members. The nineteenth century consolidated the home as the site of enclosed intimacy and was increasingly seen as the location of moral development, mental independence and recreational recovery. The period also and perhaps more significantly, promoted the creation of what we would now term social networking, the use of the information technology of the time to extend the realm of personal interactions. So intensive did the postal service become that within cities it was possible to conduct conversations, arrange and engage in meetings, by exchanging mail back and forth within a single day.

The Penny Post was intended to terminate the flourishing networks of informal letter-carrying which had grown up to circumvent the high cost of the Royal Mail. Its success meant that all the delicate sentiments communicated between friends, lovers, parted husbands and wives, and parents and children away from home, were now passing through the hands of official employees under the supervision of the government of the day. The Lord Chief Justice challenged the Home Secretary:

He (Lord) Denman should like to know the feelings of any Secretary of State when he first found himself in the execution of his duty, opening a private letter, becoming the depository of the secrets of a private family, becoming acquainted with circumstances of which he would wish to be ignorant, meeting an individual in society, and knowing that he was in possession of secrets dearer to him than his life.

But the Home Secretary, an upright Tory baronet, could not see the point. His responsibility was keeping the nation safe from internal threats, which in the era of Chartism, the first mass working-class movement, seemed real and imminent. He had no conception of the heightened sensitivies surrounding privacy.

The interaction between privacy and surveillance remains the difficulty for the current government spokesmen. The behaviour of overseas security agencies is at one level a matter for the Foreign Secretary but at another entirely beyond his sphere of competence. Placatory statements to Parliament about the behaviour of GCHQ or the NSA do not begin to embrace the concerns raised by Edward Snowden’s revelations. The event gains its scale because of the collision between state security and the structures and expectations of virtual privacy that have gained new forms and intensities as a consequence of the digital revolution.

The management of secrecy

Sir James Graham’s second difficulty was his defence of secrecy about secrecy. A year before the postal espionage crisis, Jeremy Bentham’s essay ‘Of Publicity’ was posthumously published. This became a founding text of open government. 'Publicity', he wrote, 'is the fittest law for securing the public confidence, and causing it constantly to advance towards the end of its institution.’ Conversely, 'secresy [sic] is an instrument of conspiracy; it ought not, therefore, to be the system of a regular government.' The destruction of the ‘mystery’ surrounding the state became a shared endeavour of reformers on both sides of the Atlantic. But the post-Reform Act Parliament, forged out of a constitutional crisis between 1830 and 1832, and then threatened by Chartism from 1838, was by no means hostile to the need for some degree of covert action to counter the challenges to the new order. No MP in the often bitter debates that followed Mazzini’s protest demanded the end of all forms of surveillance. Rather they wanted the rules to be made visible and their application accountable. Their preferred remedy was legislation which would compel the Post Office to inform recipients that their mail had been opened.

The Home Secretary remained silent. In words that have been repeated by government spokesmen of every party through to the present day, he declined to confirm or deny that a particular act of espionage had taken place. It was an appeal to an unwritten precedent that subsequently gained authority through repetition. Under pressure he conceded an enquiry into past practice, partly in order to demonstrate the shared culpability of his opponents. But the Commons' Select Committee was held in secret and its outcome shed no light on the detail of current practice. Sir James Graham’s behaviour eventually drove his principal assailant, Thomas Duncombe MP, to make the first explicit attack on official secrecy:

the answer of the right hon. Baronet was, that he must firmly but respectfully decline to answer any question on that subject. If a Secretary of State, or the Government, were justified in screening and sheltering themselves behind this official secrecy, he wanted to know what became of that responsibility of which we heard so much when any measure was submitted giving more extensive powers to the Secretary of State or the Government?

The secrecy about secrecy had two immediate consequences, both of which are visible today. Firstly the government’s silence not only concealed what it had done but also prevented any denial of what it had not done. It was open season for conspiracy theorists. Before long the government was faced with the inflammatory but largely unfounded accusation that the letters of numerous MPs had been opened. Bound by the emerging doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, Graham was also unable to vent his frustration at the behaviour of the Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen, who had allowed the request from the Austrian Government to spy on Mazzini and then kept well out of the way when the crisis broke.

Secondly it foregrounded the issue of trust. Without a clear legal framework or the information required for Parliamentary oversight, the only defence of secrecy lay in the perceived character of the practitioners. Over the course of the nineteenth century the doctrine of 'honourable secrecy' took form. Ministers and senior civil servants shared the values of public service and self-denial, inculcated through their common education and the traditions of their social class. They knew what to say and when not to say it. And as Graham’s evident mortification demonstrated, their silence was a function of self-sacrifice not self-aggrandisement. In its own time the claim was effective, not least because of the combination of competence and integrity with which the honour was delivered. The rapid expansion of the government after World War One, its declining reputation for honesty and efficiency in the conduct of foreign affairs from Suez to Iraq, and the increasingly complex interactions between officials and the private sector have attenuated the doctrine. Since 1989 a structure of legal oversight of the security services has been put in place, but much still depends on powers exercised out of sight. As long as secrecy about secrecy is maintained, the threadbare cloak of honourable secrecy remains the last defence of government in the conduct of surveillance.

The boundaries of the state

Integral to the drama of 1844 was a construction of national sovereignty. Ministers were accused of acting on behalf of a foreign government. Not only was postal espionage allegedly a breach of the rights of free-born Englishmen, it was being conducted in the interests of a tyrannical autocracy.

Thomas Carlyle thundered to The Thunderer in June, 1844:

Whether the extraneous Austrian Emperor and the miserable old chimera of a Pope shall maintain themselves in Italy, or be obliged to decamp from Italy, is not a question in the least vital to Englishmen. But it is a question vital to us that sealed letters in an English post-office be, as we all fancied they were, respected as things sacred; that opening of men’s letters, a practice near of kin to picking men’s pockets, and to others still viler and far fataler forms of scoundrelism, be not resorted to in England, except in cases of the very last extremity.

An editorial in The Times agreed: ‘the proceeding cannot be English, any more than masks, poisons, sword-sticks, secret signs and associations, and other such dark inventions.’

There were two processes in play. The first was a narrative of indigenous liberty, associated with but not reducible to a set of constitutional conventions and legal guarantees. This supplied the vocabulary and the values against which to judge the behaviour of domestic politicians and overseas regimes. The government’s case that public espionage preserved national security was met by the charge that official secrecy betrayed national identity.

The second was the assumption of political autarky, that all matters relating to surveillance were within the remit of the British government. It controlled its own postal service and neither domestic commercial interests nor foreign powers could interfere. In 1844 the private sector had just been expelled from postal services. The only difficulty was the temptation of European governments to act in concert when one amongst their number was threatened by revolutionary movements such as Italian republicanism. But already the technology of mass communication was moving on. The first British telegraph patent was taken out in 1837 and lines were being laid alongside the new railway tracks as the espionage crisis broke. The invention rapidly escaped national boundaries. A London to Paris line was established in 1852, and after a number of failures a reliable transatlantic cable was in use by 1866. The first global communications organisation, the International Telegraph Union, was founded in 1865, followed a decade later by the Universal Postal Union.

In this sense the nineteenth century was inventing a problem which the early twenty-first is struggling to resolve. It was always possible through postal espionage for one country to open the mail of citizens of another. As the Report from the Secret Committee on the Post Office established, this had been practised at least since Elizabethan times and it was the essence of the request by the Austrian government in 1844. But the arrival of electronic and then digital networks, and the growing presence of private companies in their management, have vastly compounded the potential for the narrative of national liberty to collide with the realities of international surveillance.

Privacy panics

In 1844 what began as a political scandal rapidly escaped the confines of Parliament. The event constituted the first modern panic about privacy. Sir James Graham’s sympathetic biographer captured the texture of the time:

In the complete ignorance prevailing, both as to the actual state of the law, and still more as to the long-established practice respecting the Post Office, the question put by Mr Duncombe, gave rise to popular conjectures and suspicions without end. It was like a match struck for a moment amid profound darkness, revealing to the startled crowd vague forms of terror, of which they had never previously had a glimpse, and about which they forthwith began to talk at random, until a gigantic system of espionage had been conjured up, which no mere general assurance of its unreality could dispel.

It is possible to identity six elements of such a panic: exposed abuse; attempted concealment; communications revolution; fear of networks; location of power; and media exploitation. The absence of poppy seeds in Mazzini’s mail exposed the abuse and breach of public trust. Graham’s secrecy about secrecy generated a sense of general concealment. The public understood the connection between secrecy and privacy, highlighted by the recent introduction of the Penny Post, and recognised the immeasurable change in communications networks, which posed unknowable threats to existing systems of managing personal information. The near simultaneous introduction of the railways, mass postage and the electronic telegraph constituted the first such turning point since the invention of printing. There was a clear target for blame, in this case the Home Secretary or the Austrian Government. Finally and perhaps most importantly there was a vigorous and varied media, wired for sensation.

The ‘paroxysm of national anger’ was fed not just by the national press and associated periodical literature, but by radical journalism, largely freed from government control during the 1830s. It quickly gained an international dimension, with stories appearing in New York and later as far away as Australia. And it was sustained by a vigorous visual and imaginative culture. The single most influential image of the crisis was a cartoon in the newly-foundedPunch showing Sir James Graham opening letters dressed as Paul Pry, the eponymous hero of an immensely successful comedy first performed in 1825.

The nearest equivalent to the television or cinema in this era was serial fiction. As the Mazzini affair was unfolding, G.W.M. Reynolds started his penny weekly, The Mysteries of London, which at its peak sold 40,000 copies a week. He quickly encompassed topical news stories, devoting three chapters to the ‘black cabinet’. Readers were introduced to ‘The Examiner’, ‘an elderly gentleman, with a high forehead, open countenance, thin white hair falling over his coat, and dressed in a complete suit of black’ climbing the steps to the northern door ‘leading to the Inland Letter Department of the General Post Office, Saint Martin’s le Grand’. Once inside he made his way to the Black Chamber, bolting and chaining the door behind him:

The Examiner … glanced complacently around him; and a smile of triumph curled his thin pale lips. At the same time his small, grey, sparkling eyes were lighted up with an expression of diabolical cunning: his whole countenance was animated with a glow of pride and conscious power.

Here was a government official as villain. His power lay precisely in the intersection of public and private secrets that had so exercised Graham’s critics. He received instruction from his political masters in the interests of national security, but in the course of his letter-opening he was privy to the confidential discourse of those whose respectability concealed every kind of personal scandal:

He conversed with peers and gentlemen who were lauded as the essence of honour and of virtue, but whose fame would have withered like parched scroll, had his breath, pregnant with fearful revelations, only fanned its surface. There were few, either men or women, of rank and name, of whom he knew not something which they would wish to remain unknown.

The conjunction of the six elements did not reoccur in the remainder of the nineteenth century. The evidence of the more recent past is that the conditions for such explosions are reoccurring, and that the intervals between them are shortening.

Consumer behaviour

The conduct of virtual privacy always involved risk. Even without the prospect of government surveillance there were the dangers of letters being overseen as they were written or read in crowded domestic interiors, of gossiping friends or neighbours involved as scribes or readers for the less educated, of incriminating mail stored away and falling into the wrong hands. Advice manuals warned against the threats, the plots of contemporary plays and novels were driven by epistolary misfortunes. Correspondents, before and after the Penny Post, were engaged in a form of consumer bargaining, exchanging expected pleasures for assumed risks. Referring to the internet and credit cards, Katz and Tassone draw attention to ways in which ‘an element of privacy is ceded, consciously or unconsciously, in return for participation in new forms of consumption or communication.’ This kind of trading was apparent in the era dominated by the written word. There was no external compulsion to put pen to paper and a stamp on an envelope. Letter-writers were making a more-or-less informed exchange of perceived gain for estimated danger.

With the Penny Post, for the first time the communication practices of a nation were systematically counted. The Post Office delivered letters and generated statistics. As with contemporary digital media, the use of information technologies could be calibrated on a standardised basis over time and between countries. This permitted some kind of objective measure of the impact of the 1844 crisis. Given the intensity of the debate and the range of the media which aired it, few people would have been unaware of the issue. Graham’s refusal to supply detail of his reserve powers meant that no final assurance was available to future correspondents, even though we now know that the practice was quietly discontinued for three decades. This was the first and last time since at least the sixteenth century that there was no postal surveillance. But against his critics the Home Secretary could take comfort from the demonstrable behaviour of those exposed to the violation of their privacy. There was no short-term drop in correspondence and by 1914 annual postal flows had risen from two hundred million to three and a half billion. However much he had suffered personally, his culture of surveillance had won through.

The same kind of statistical testing is available now. It is more granulated, more voluminous, more instant, and unlike the nineteenth century, involves the profits of multinational corporations. If, in the current privacy crisis, the traffic of Google and Facebook falls sharply, and with it their share prices, a lesson will be learned by governments and the commercial sector. Should the global public turn away from the digital media in response to the revelations about the extent of state surveillance, pressure may be generated for reform. Conversely, if the metrics show no decline in use despite all the publicity and debate, conclusions may be drawn which are the reverse of those demanded by liberal protesters. Edward Snowden’s revelations will have demonstrated that in practice, the web-surfing, texting and emailing public are indifferent to the risks they run to their privacy. On 1 August 2013, The Guardian reported that Facebook’s shares had ‘soared by more than 40%’ in the preceding week, reaching its highest level since the company was floated in May 2012. And on 23 September, USA Today reported that, 'Citigroup has upgraded its stock to a buy to a buy, saying that the company's momentum is sustainable.'

Further Reading

Campbell-Smith, D., Masters of the Post (London, Allen Lane, 2011).

Moran, C., Classified. Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (Cambridge, CUP, 2013).

Porter, B., Plots and Paranoia: a history of political espionage in Britain, 1790-1988 (London, Unwin Hyman, 1989).

Vincent, D., The Culture of Secrecy. Britain 1832-1998 (Oxford, OUP, 1998).

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