Wiretapping - cell phone | Adobe 249867285
Image: Adobe Stock

Only the Surveilling Technology Is New ‘The Listeners’ Contends

In The Listeners, scholar Brian Hochman narrates a history of surveillance in the United States by means of technological cunning up to 2001.

The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States
Brian Hochman
Harvard University Press
March 2022

In a brief epilogue to The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping In the United States, Georgetown University Professor Brian Hochman admits that in the book’s production, he made minimal use of wiretapped transcripts. It is an arresting admission for a study on eavesdropping. It also hints at an essential challenge – practical and moral – that faces both ordinary people and historians who will live with surveillance and attempt to understand it.

There are practical challenges in that such transcripts may be compromised or lack context, which is mostly the concern of biographers and historians. But Hochman would like readers to pause over the broader moral challenge: that one still has a choice in the extent to which one acquiesces to the normalization of electronic surveillance carried out by governments and big businesses in the post-9/11 era.

This is the challenge Hochman leaves with the reader, but it is not the one that detains him in the foregoing pages. In The Listeners, Hochman narrates a history of surveillance in the United States by means of technological cunning up to 2001 and establishes three clear points. The first is that the American ideal of privacy has never truly existed. However, Hochman does not intend to throw cold water on the prospects of present-day privacy advocates because – and this is his second point – for as long as eavesdropping has been carried out by governments, businesses, criminals, and law enforcement agencies, it has existed alongside articulate critics of the practice.  

Hochman’s third and mostly implied point is that the amorphous coalition that animated opposition to eavesdropping has been receding for decades and is more marginal now than it has been at any point since the 1860s. In 1955, the presiding judge in a trial of four men convicted for administering a covert “listening post” for various unlawful purposes criticized the principals in the following way: “Illegal wiretapping is a slimy activity, which directly and adversely affects our social and political life. It cannot be condemned too strongly.” A year earlier, a New York congressman remarked that “wiretapping is a vicious cancer. It requires heroic treatment, not palliation or plasters. It must be cut out.”   

The Listeners is also a story about technology and the challenges around controlling or regulating it as it evolves. At points, Hochman’s narrative illustrates what in law and policy circles is known as the Collingridge dilemma: “When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult, and time-consuming.” As early as the 1950s, upon the advent of the transistor, for some critics, it became reasonable to imagine that the individual’s private sanctuary would no longer ever be beyond the reach of the wiretap and the bug.

Likewise, the social consequences and privacy implications of drones, facial recognition technology, or the data-driven predictive algorithms that saturate us in targeted advertisements, for example, cannot be known exactly. We are well into the second stage of Collingride’s formulation, whereby change and control – as law, policy, or as healthy social conventions built up organically over time – have become difficult and time-consuming. Hence, Hochman’s references to the PATRIOT Act, “dataveillance”, and Harvard professor and author Shoshana Zuboff’s description of surveillance capitalism.

Must we relinquish the long-valued ideal of privacy with such technological power arrayed against us? To be sure, the ethical historian of a subject that is by its nature elusive and protean faces novel challenges. For one, Hochner has sought to trace how popular attitudes towards “listening” have evolved. He does this with techniques used by cultural historians – episodic detours, examples drawn from popular culture, the insight provided by tech hobbyists and businesspeople – and by intellectual historians. For the latter, he routinely deploys an impressive erudition and dexterity in following the laws, legal opinions, policy papers, reviews, opinion pieces, and academic literature that shaped or were shaped by practices or attitudes towards surveillance.

All of this hangs together despite Hochman’s decision to disavow using eavesdropping transcriptions as primary evidence. We might follow him too in doing the difficult work of becoming informed, vigilant, and principled about the long creep of surveillance into our lives; and by picking up the threads left for us by privacy and civil liberties activists over the century-and-a-half period chronicled by The Listeners.

RATING 8 / 10