Via Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, we have a reminder of a December 1975 article in Washington Monthly that warned about the potential for government spooks to use the newfangled thing then called the ARPANET to spy on citizens domestically.

The most significant thing about ARPANET is that it permits the instant connection of computers of different types, ranging from the huge ILLIAC IV to the commercial-class models produced by IBM and others. Complex switching techniques allowing these computers to “talk to each other” are considered a major technological break-through. The question that goes on haunting civil libertarians is whether ARPANET can be used for domestic intelligence by being hooked into CIA, FBI, military intelligence, White House, or other computer systems.

Author Tad Szulc (whom Paleofuture notes was “probably” not a time traveler) was writing just a year after President Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate resignation. That makes it all the more fascinating just how well the piece reflects not only the mid-1970s conspiracy theory paranoia that drove films of the day like”The Parallax Effect,” “The Conversation” and “Three Days of the Condor,” but that also sounds so apropos of the post-Snowden reality we all have come to know.

There is no evidence, however, that ARPANET has been devised with domestic intelligence in mind. ARPA officials say that the network has never been employed for anything except the computerized exchange of military scientific data among the institutions forming ARPANET.

Still, the question lingers: Could the next Nixon order ARPANET to be turned into a police instrument, instantly telling every government agency everything there is to be known about every American citizen whose name has been recorded somewhere?


Featured Publications