History of Surveillance Timeline

  • 1700s

    Lantern Laws

    Lantern Laws in New York City in the 1700s require Black, mixed-race, and Indigenous enslaved people to carry lit lanterns when in the city after sundown and unaccompanied by a white person.

  • 1789

    United States Constitution

    U.S. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights restrict invasive information gathering and seek to protect the rights of the individual, limit the role of government in American society, and reinforce the importance of private property for exercising individual liberty.

  • 1790

    First Census

    First attempt by the U.S. government to conduct systematic and universal gathering of information about its citizens through a census. The census collected basic data on the gender, color, and identity of free males above the age of 16 years

  • 1798

    Alien and Sedition Acts

    President John Adams and the Federalist Congress passed The Alien and Sedition Acts that, among other measures, included the ability to deport any foreigner designated as dangerous or hailing from a country with which the United States was at war. The acts expired once Adams left office.

  • 1819

    Slave Patrols

    The South Carolina General Assembly enacts a law requiring all white men over the age of 18 to participate in slave patrols. These organized groups of armed men were tasked with regulating the activity of slaves and often terrorized black people and raided their homes.

  • 1862

    California Wiretapping Law

    California creates a statute prohibiting wiretapping telegraphs shortly after the Pacific Telegraph Company reaches the West Coast. The first person convicted was a stock broker who was caught listening to corporate telegraph lines and selling the information to stock traders.

  • 1895

    Police Wiretapping

    First wiretapping by police is recorded in New York when a former telephone worker who had joined the city police suggests listening in on wires used by criminals. William L. Strong, Mayor of New York at the time, approves the project, and police engage in secret wiretapping for years.

  • 1897

    National Bureau of Identification

    The National Chiefs of Police Union founded the National Bureau of Identification, a government agency dedicated to recording identifying information on criminals for use by law enforcement.

  • 1908

    Bureau of Investigation

    With the growth of cities and crime rate across the United States, in 1908 Attorney General Charles Bonaparte established a force of agents to conduct investigations for the Department of Justice. The force was known as the Bureau of Investigation and in 1935 was renamed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

  • 1916

    New York Police Wiretapping Scandal

    An investigation of public utilities in New York uncovers that police are tapping hundreds of phones a year to track criminals and suppress labor activism. The ensuing national scandal leads to a Senate Committee recommending that New York rein in police wiretapping.

  • 1917

    The Espionage Act

    In June 1917, the United States Congress passed the Espionage Act. The main goal was to stop wartime activities that were considered dangerous or disloyal. This included any attempts to acquire defense information to be used against the United States such as codes, photographs, blueprints, etc.

  • 1919-1920

    The Palmer Raids and Red Scare

    Following World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the first Red Scare period in the United States was marked by fear of leftist movements and influence. The U.S. Department of Justice conducted raids led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, known as Palmer Raids in an attempt to arrest foreign anarchists, communists, and radical leftists. When the brutality of the raids became public knowledge, Palmer lost support and credibility, the Red Scare subsided and the raids stopped.

  • 1924

    National Fingerprint Database

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) receives a legislative mandate to manage a national fingerprint card database, which contained 100 million records by 1946. Since that time, fingerprinting has been the predominant method of identification used by U.S. law enforcement agencies.

  • 1925

    Panopticon in the US

    The Statesville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, IL, opens in 1925. The center's "F-House" cellhouse, commonly known as a "roundhouse", has a panopticon layout, allowing guards to observe any of the inmates without them knowing if and when they are being watched. The panopticon idea was originally conceived by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785.

  • 1928

    Olmsted v. United States

    The Supreme Court ruling in Olmsted v. United States narrowly affirmed (in a 5-4 verdict) the constitutionality of police wiretapping. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice William Howard Taft said private telephone communications were no different from casual conversations overheard in a public place.

  • 1930s

    La Follette Civil Liberties Committee

    In the late 1930s, the Senate La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, or more formally, the Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee Investigating Violations of Free Speech and the Rights of Labor (1936–1941), found all sorts of wiretap abuses on the part of corporations in the context of its investigation of methods used by employers in certain industries to avoid collective bargaining with unions

  • 1938

    Un-American Activities Committee

    The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate disloyalty and rebellion amongst private citizens as well as public employees and organizations suspected of having ties to Communism. This continued into the 1950s with the practice of McCarthyism (named after Senator Joseph McCarthy), accusing federal employees of having Communist ties and leaking government information

  • 1939

    Operation SHAMROCK

    Operation SHAMROCK was tasked with monitoring radio and wire communications targeting agents of foreign governments or agents of foreign commercial enterprises. It started during World War II, but continued well into the 1970s, when the details about the operation became known to the American public through the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho).

  • 1947

    The National Security Act of 1947

    The National Security Act of 1947 led to the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which still serves as the primary intelligence gathering organization in the United States government.

  • 1952

    National Security Agency

    The United States National Security Agency (NSA) is established by the Secretary of Defense acting under specific intructions from the President and the National Security Council.

  • 1967

    Supreme Court Cases

    The Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 and Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 United States Supreme Court cases limit the power of the government to obtain information from citizens without their consent, based on the protections under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • 1968

    Wiretap Statute

    The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, aka the Wiretap Statute, mandates the requirement for probable cause and individual warrants.

  • 1973

    Nixon's Enemy List

    “Nixon’s Enemy List” becomes public knowledge during the Watergate hearings. The purpose of the list was to exploit Nixon’s political opponents using tactics like looking into their tax audits.

  • 1978

    Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

    The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) sought to provide judicial and congressional oversight of foreign intelligence surveillance activities in response to the exposure of abuses of U.S. persons’ privacy rights by certain components of the United States government. Initially, FISA addressed only electronic surveillance but has been significantly amended to address the use of pen registers and trap and trace devices, physical searches, and business records.

  • 1981

    Executive Order 12333

    Executive Order 12333, signed by President Reagan, stipulates how all 17 United States intelligence organizations can collect information about citizens and foreign nationals abroad.

  • 1986

    Electronic Communications Privacy Act

    Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) (aka Wiretap Act) extends restrictions on government wiretaps of telephone calls to include transmissions of electronic data by computer. ECPA does not apply to video surveillance lacking sound and is triggered only in situations when the subject of surveillance has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  • 1994

    Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act

    The Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires telephone companies to redesign their network architectures to make it easier for law enforcement to wiretap digital telephone calls. In 2005, CALEA was expanded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to include Internet service providers (ISPs) and some VoIP services.

  • 2001

    Kyllo v. United States

    In Kyllo v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States found that it was unlawful and against the Fourth Amendment to aim a thermal-imaging device at a private home from a public street without a warrant.

  • 2001


    Following the terrorist attack on September 11, Congress enacted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act. In the name of national security, the act expands the government’s authority to monitor phone and email communications. In 2006, 14 of the original provisions planned to be sunset were made permanent under the USA PATRIOT Act Improvement and Reauthorization Act.

  • 2003

    Room 641A

    An AT&T telecommunications interception facility called Room 641A started operations, but its existence was not revealed until 2006. It was used for warrantless surveillance and had the capabilities to surveil widespread internet activity, domestic and international. Whistleblower and AT&T employee Mark Klein revealed the existence of the room.

  • 2008

    Section 702

    Section 702 was passed as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act. Section 702 authorizes collection of foreign intelligence from non-Americans located outside the United States. It has to be renewed by Congress every few years.

  • 2012

    United States v. Jones

    In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court of the United States found that using Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking devices without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and was unconstitutional.

  • 2013

    Snowden Revelations

    Edward Snowden leaks information from the NSA about their surveillance program. These leaked documents included the NSA collecting phone records from millions of cell phone customers, data collected on internet users from their Facebook and Google, along with information that the U.S. government was also surveilling overseas.


  • 2014

    Riley v. California

    In the landmark United States Supreme Court case Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, the court ruled that the warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

  • 2015


    The USA FREEDOM (Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring) Act replaced the USA PATRIOT Act, limiting the government’s authority to collect data in response to exposure of the government’s bulk collection of phone and Internet records, in part motivated by the Snowden leaks of NSA documents in 2013.

  • 2018

    Carpenter v. United States

    In Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the use of historical cell-site location information (CSLI) without a warrant was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

  • 2024

    FISA Expiration

    Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is set to expire on April 19, 2024, but the program has been authorized to continue operating until April 2025. Under the law, the surveillance activity can continue as long as there are active court orders allowing it, even if Section 702 expires.