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Wiretapping, from Telegraphs to iPhones

April 26, 2016—“What if we never had wiretapping?”

If you were asked to date that quote, chances are you’d place it in the last five years or so—and in this case, you’d be right. That’s Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, responding to a question on the FBI-Apple encryption controversy during a March 2016 “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular internet forum Reddit.

But questions about wiretapping date back much further than the public debate raging right now, and Georgetown College professor Brian Hochman is working to chronicle its largely forgotten history.

Hochman has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct research at the AT&T Archives and Records Center in New Jersey for his next book, tentatively titled All Ears: A History of Wiretapping in the United States.

Hochman is assistant professor of English and a core faculty member of the American Studies and Film and Media Studies programs. His newest book project builds on his academic interest in “the texts and technologies that have shaped American cultural history since the mid-nineteenth century.” All Ears will be a history of wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping in the United States from 1850s to the near-present.

“We talk about it as a new phenomenon, but wiretapping has been around as long as the wires,” he said. “The earliest state law against wiretapping was written in 1862, which means that telegraph tapping was common in some parts of the country. Civil War generals even brought professional wiretappers with them on military campaigns.”

Hochman aims to combine a definitive history of eavesdropping technologies—and the laws passed in attempts to control them—with a cultural study of the way Americans have “come to understand our communications as porous.”

He plans to use his time in the AT&T Archives to study the 1920s. “Wiretapping became understood as a national problem during the Prohibition era,” he explained. “Listening to and recording phone conversations was the primary tool that state and federal law enforcement agencies used to combat organized crime and bootlegging syndicates.”

According to Hochman, many Prohibition-era wiretapping cases feature examples of some of the same ethical issues that continue to vex policymakers today.

“Law enforcement wiretapping was pervasive in the 1920s and early 1930s,” Hochman said. “But in some cases, it turns out that the easiest way for police to listen to phone conversations wasn’t to tap a wire, it was to listen in through the Bell telephone system central exchange. So it involved a state-corporate partnership—law enforcement was in cahoots with corporations. When we talk about the NSA partnering with Facebook or Verizon, et cetera, today, we think it’s new and unprecedented, but these partnerships actually have a long history.”

The misconception about the novelty of electronic eavesdropping is perhaps the biggest myth that Hochman hopes to debunk in All Ears.

“A lot of our public discussions about communications and privacy rest on this false sense of nostalgia about a time without eavesdropping. Every 15 years, going back to the 1860s, America rediscovers this problem. But there really are no electronic communications without wiretapping—they coexist.”

Related Information

Brian Hochman is the author of Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). He discusses some of the ideas he’ll explore in All Ears in the February 2016 Post45 article, “Eavesdropping in the Age of The Eavesdroppers; or, The Bug in the Martini Olive.”

For news and updates, follow Professor Hochman on Twitter: @brian_hochman.

– Melissa Nyman

American Studies
Faculty Research
Film & Media Studies