Mazzini suspected something was up, so he sent himself envelopes, inside which he placed poppy seeds, hair and grains of sand, sealing them with wax. Commentators defended Mazzini’s privacy – and that of all English men.
When they arrived, no trace could be found of the seeds, hair or sand. The MP Thomas Duncombe petitioned parliament for the interception to end. They argued that the state should not be acting in this way, especially on behalf of a foreign government, and that privacy was inviolable right.
Working men wanted and fought to get the vote and political reforms.
The Mazzini affair should remind us that the state has always tried to surveil the public.
It has always pushed to read what people write to each other in private.
It has always talked up risks to it, which have existed.
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In 1844, long before the internet and apps were invented, the British state was opening and reading private letters sent via Royal Mail, and the first modern panic about privacy erupted, triggered by poppy seeds, strands of hair and fine grains of sand.A few years earlier the introduction of the pre-paid, flat rate Penny Post had democratised correspondence.For a tiny expense, personal letters could be sent back and forth, faster than ever before.It was a slower version of e-mail, but perhaps more revolutionary.Communication sped up exponentially, creating a new sense of time.It also contributed to an expanding private sphere.