Privacy and the old Bell System

by Colin Berkshire

Today, Verizon monitors every website you visit, and presumably they sell this information at least to the NSA and perhaps to anybody willing to pay.

I was asked the question, but hasn’t this always been how it was?


In the old Bell System, the privacy of customers was sacred and absolute. It was called “Secrecy of Communications” and every employee every year had to sit through a presentation and then sign a document that they would never observe or share any customer communication.

Customer Privacy was taken to ridiculous levels. An operator verifying a line could bring it up and listen in to see if it was working, but the audio would be garbled and made unintelligible. If somebody in a Central Office listened in on a circuit that was in use, they must never disclose that or what was said.

Theft of service through Black Boxes was a serious problem in the 1970s. Bell developed a system to automatically monitor lines in and out for the Black box tones. But in the end, the program was cancelled because of privacy concerns. Even a machine listening to calls for content—even illegal content—was verboten.

The room where telephone bills were printed was strictly off limits to even the highest technical people. Only a few people could be in that room and they were strictly observed that they never actually looked at a bill (for fear of their remembering a number called.)

The truth is that the Bell System didn’t keep phone call records for long, and they never, ever provided these records routinely to anybody…not even the government.

Every subpoena submitted to the Bell System was carefully scrutinized. I worked in that department for a while. And, perhaps half of those requests were rejected because they were not sufficiently narrow and specific as to online only the one individual. We tried to make it not worthwhile for law enforcement to ask us for information. (The head of the phone tap authorization department at AT&T retired to a castle in Florence Italy, by the way.)

This era of freely invading customer’s privacy and of freely sharing customer information with the government as a for-profit product is a new thing. It is not at all how the old Bell System operated.

Customer Privacy was so absolute that even customer were not allowed to invade the privacy of another. It was at the urging of the Bell System that the wiretap laws of the states and nation were first written. You see, the Bell System knew that people would only trust electronic communications of they knew their conversations were private.

I lived in the 1960s and 1970s and I know firsthand that privacy was sacred, unlike today.