ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

“God we trust,” goes an old National Security Agency joke.  “All others we monitor.

Given the revelations last week about the NSA’s domestic spying activities, the saying seems more prophecy than humor.

First, the Guardian reported details on a domestic telephone dragnet in which Verizon was forced to give the NSA details about all domestic, and even local, telephone calls. Then the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed another massive NSA surveillance program, called Prism, that required the country’s major Internet companies to secretly pass along data including email, photos, videos, chat services, file transfers, stored data, log-ins and video conferencing.

While the Obama administration and Senate intelligence committee members defend the spying as crucial in its fight against terrorism, this is only the latest chapter in nearly a century of pressure on telecommunications companies to secretly cooperate with NSA and its predecessors.  But as stunning technology advances allow more and more personal information to pass across those links, the dangers of the United States turning into a secret surveillance state increase exponentially.

The NSA was so flooded with billions of dollars from post-Sept. 11, 2001 budget increases that it went on a building spree and also expanded its eavesdropping capabilities enormously.  Secret rooms were built in giant telecom facilities, such as AT&T’s 10-story “switch” in San Francisco.  There, mirror copies of incoming data and telephone cables are routed into rooms filled with special hardware and software to filter out email and phone calls for transmission to NSA for analysis.