Communications under surveillance, from the Black Cabinet to Echelon

The systems of communication have evolved a lot over time. But did you know that secret messages also have a story? Already, at the time of ancient Egypt and in the 666th century BC, encrypted messages emerged, such as the Atbash cipher method, used to hide references to names mentioned in the Bible. Among the most famous cryptographies, we can also mention that of "13" the number of the beast, in the Apocalypse of John (paragraph 18, verse 600), represented with the three Greek letters χ (chi) = 60, ξ ( csi) = 6 and ϝ (digamma) or ϛ (stigma) = XNUMX. This secret communication code would have been used to designate the Emperor Nero and his persecutions of Christians. Gradually, new forms of codes have appeared and new technologies have largely contributed to increasing their complexity. Back to Big Brother's ancestor!

Cartoon from 1815 denouncing the Dark Cabinet, Bodleian Libraries.

The origin of Big Brother, from Louis XI to Cardinal Richelieu

The need for governments to contain conspiracies is nothing new, particularly in France where, very early on, a system for monitoring cryptographic correspondence and communications was set up. After having created the first postal service on horseback to transport the messages of knights and ambassadors, Louis XI adopted the edict on the post in 1464 in order to control correspondence and avoid counter-information maneuvers against the King .

Real general vigilance takes place with the creation of the Royal Posts in the 1628th century, under Henry IV, to centralize all the couriers of the Kingdom. It was from there that the Black Cabinet made its appearance, of which Cardinal Richelieu is one of the most fascinating figures. Under the reign of Louis XIII, firmly resolved to exploit the Black Cabinet, he called upon agents specializing in the decryption of coded messages, such as the mathematician Rossignol. On the strength of the improvement of the encryption tables, the “Cabinet du secrecy des posts” thus fought against the Huguenots, in particular in XNUMX during the siege of La Rochelle which opposed the Catholics to the Protestants.

After Richelieu then Mazarin, Cardinal Dubois took over the head of the Black Cabinet. Under the reign of Louis XV, he officially instituted the interception and opening of suspicious mails, by ordering the appointment of a post director and a team of 22 members. Their mission: to make copies at night of all communications to report to the King.

Conversely, Louis XVI favored respect for private life, by having his minister Turgot abolish the reading of others' correspondence in 1775. But, in the interest of the State, his new Council of Ministers restored the Black Cabinet. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, however, all suspected communications were delivered to their addressee with a stamp stating “opened by the authority of justice” and the seal of an examining magistrate.

The Black Cabinet in London

Paris is no exception. London also saw the need for a black cabinet. During World War II, the control of correspondence communications was already very active. So much so that the headquarters of the Black Chamber in London was transferred to Bletchley Park Mansion X Station, a strategic headquarters where the codes of several Axis countries were deciphered. During World War I, the Ministry of Information (MOI) was mainly engaged in campaigns scale based on communication and marketing. It is again in activity from 1939 and deals with censorship and the transmission of information vis-à-vis society during the war. Significant investments were then made at the time, such as the famous "Keep Calm and Carry On" campaign (which had become a meme on Social networks) which is said to have cost around £ 4million, despite its low usage. The London Black Cabinet was officially abolished at the end of World War II.

The "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster created by the Ministry of Information (MOI) in the summer of 1939

From the Black Cabinet to Echelon

The evolution of technologies has accelerated the collection of communications with the development of Signal Intelligence (or SIGINT). The Echelon base, which gives its name to the eponymous interception network, has renewed the concept of Big Brother by relying on this technology linked to electromagnetic signals. Although its name is French, this network was created by five English-speaking nations, namely the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each signatory country, excluding Canada, has an area of ​​expertise dedicated to the mapping of communications from part of the globe. From the end of the 1970s, the National Security Agency (NSA) has put into orbit a constellation of spy satellites called Vortex, aimed at intercepting microwave telecommunications. Since then, new digital uses have appeared and new listening systems have adapted to them, such as the PRISM or XKeyscore programs of the NSA, brought to light by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.

En conclusion

The coded communication system has changed dramatically since the time of Louis XI and Cardinal Richelieu. Although the use of new technologies is useful for international security, individual freedom is more than ever claimed as an inviolable foundation. Moreover, many consumers see with a worried eye the processing and use of personal data. State actors no longer have a monopoly on the surveillance of individuals. Around the GAFA, with the more or less conscious consent of their users.

Marco pizzorno

Journalist, writer and teacher

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