In Listeners, Brian Hochman describes in detail the history of wiretapping

Listeners: A History of Eavesdropping in the United States, by Brian Hochman, Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $ 33.67

America’s first wiretapping conviction came in 1864. A stockbroker named DC Williams tapped a telegraph line in California to obtain corporate information that he used for lucrative stock deals. The law he broke was passed two years earlier, making California the first state to regulate wiretapping.

The telephone had not yet been invented, and the transcontinental telegraph was barely complete. Golden State lawmakers are ahead of the game. Since then, e-surveillance legislation has been catching up with both technology and public sentiment.

In the early days of the telegraph, confidentiality was a difficult problem to solve. It was impossible to expect or require only the addressee to be able to see your communication: the operators had to both transmit and receive the messages, and the couriers had to deliver them. Initially, the same was true for the phone: the calls were connected by an operator and many subscribers were on party lines. This made the legislation difficult. Simple “listening” could not be forbidden, as many people had legitimate reasons to listen or could do so by accident.

“Eavesdropping has been a feature of telephony from the beginning,” said Brian Hochman of Georgetown University. The listeners, a story of American wiretapping. “Customer confidentiality was a fictional ideal that came later.”

The attitude towards eavesdropping also developed. Soldiers on both sides of the Civil War were widely involved in the practice, and newspapers described their actions as useful, even heroic. But in peacetime, wiretapping was seen as a province of fraudsters, extortionists and other disrespectful types.

These eavesdroppers invented many creative deceptions. A common technique was gambling: the scammer intercepted the results of a horse race in another city before they could be reported to a bookmaker, and then relied on those results. Given the delay in communication, it was easier to refine a late bet than you might imagine – especially before the Standard Time Act of 1918 created a national time zone system. An alternative angle was industrial espionage, stock trading based on information gathered from corporate communications.

Another scam was simply to claim to be involved in one of these clashes, to hire “investors” who would like to enter the game, and then get away with their money. (This play was shown in the movie The stingwhere depression-era fraudsters convince their victims of wiretapping fraud using a fake betting shop.) In the real world, news stories about wiretaps and their tricks played into the hands of these criminals: people couldn’t wait to believe they would. they killed the third one in Belmont, thanks to their new friend by knocking on the wire, and happily handed over their money. In this way, they joined the long tradition of saps, who think they are cheating until they realize, too late, that they are brands.

On the other side of the law, police began to use wiretaps more widely during the ban. While the cops listened to the actions of the gangsters, the controversial legislation became a real thicket. Some states, such as California, have banned wiretapping; some allowed it only to the police by court order; some had no statutes at all. This variety of rules challenged when cases reached the federal court and prosecutors avoided the source of their information instead of admitting wiretapping, which violates state law.

Similar practices have provoked civil libertarian objections. Many people, including some lawmakers, thought wiretapping was an unwarranted intrusion, even when the targets were criminals. “For most of the twentieth century, wiretapping for national security was generally seen as a necessary evil, a slight concession that individual citizens had to make in order to combat dissent and subversion,” Hochmann wrote. “In contrast, most Americans disapproved of the prospect of wiretapping to control crime.

Hochmann traces the gradual deviation from this attitude, analyzing various bills and decisions of the Supreme Court. Learning how our grandparents thought about privacy (or not) makes this text especially illuminating for modern privacy hawks.

The 1950s brought more widespread use of eavesdropping instead of eavesdropping; it avoids many existing statutes because it does not involve “touching” a line. You may encounter infringement laws if you become the property of the target, but simply placing a small microphone is not illegal in many jurisdictions. Transistor technology has made this a more viable surveillance method, and bugs have quickly become popular with private detectives as well as police.

The prospect of being eavesdropped has become mainstream in popular culture, becoming a common film plot device, even when technical magazines advertised developments that made it possible. For most of the 1960s, public emotions focused on privacy and government surveillance. Unfortunately, the unrest of the decade stopped this movement. The law and order faction has risen, renewing requests to monitor crime suspects. “Although the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to herald a new national commitment to protecting confidentiality and limiting surveillance,” Hochman wrote, “the era of electronic surveillance legislation had the ironic effect of normalizing taps and errors in areas. that would have seemed unthinkable just a decade ago. “

One result was the Omnibus Crime and Safe Street Control Act of 1968. Although this law imposed restrictions on wiretapping and wiretapping by law enforcement, it also enshrined them as standard police techniques. Eavesdropping on other parties is believed to be illegal, but government enforcement is weak.

Meanwhile, a consumer market for surveillance devices has emerged. Eavesdropping devices were sold as “answering machines”. What was once a remote eavesdropping device has been rediscovered as a “baby monitor”.

Agencies expanding the war on drugs also portrayed wiretapping as the heroic work of brave police officers, not the dirty work of crooks or private eyes. When California legalized police wiretapping in 1988, a local police officer told Los Angeles Times“Eavesdropping is the answer. Let everyone know that Big Brother, as you call our government, will be watching the big drug dealers in this state.”

Laws always lag behind technology. When cordless phones were introduced in the 1980s, “reciprocal calls” – picking up a signal from another phone nearby – were a known issue that buyers were warned about. This has led some courts to decide that users of these devices do not have “reasonable expectations of confidentiality”, allowing verdicts based on wiretapped conversations, even when there has been no surveillance order.

The tug of war continued. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act 1986 was supposed to offer people more privacy. But eight years later, another spasm of law and order led to the Law Enforcement Communication Assistance Act, which gave more powers to monitor cops. After 9/11, the US PATRIOT Act gave government agencies even more power to eavesdrop. “National security” can be a very wide network, especially in a globalized world.

Today, some of us are resigned to the idea that the National Security Agency can listen to our calls and it is almost inevitable that someone, in government or Silicon Valley, will follow our communications. We hold meetings at Zoom, knowing that the company can monitor our conversations. Is this a return to the way of thinking from a century ago, when everyone knew that the Bell operator could be online? Maybe, after all, confidentiality has always been an illusion.

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