In The Listeners, Brian Hochman Details History of Eavesdropping
The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States, by Brian Hochman, Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $33.67
America’s first wiretapping conviction happened in 1864. A stockbroker named D.C. Williams had been tapping a telegraph line in California to get corporate information, which he used for advantageous stock trades. The law he broke had been passed two years earlier, making California the first state to regulate wiretapping.
The telephone had not been invented yet, and the transcontinental telegraph had only just been completed. The Golden State’s legislators were ahead of the game. Ever since then, legislation dealing with electronic surveillance has been playing catch-up—both with the technology and with public sentiment.
In the early days of the telegraph, privacy was a difficult issue to address. It was impossible to expect or demand that only the addressee could see your communication: Operators had to both transmit and receive the messages, and couriers had to deliver them. The same was initially true of the telephone: Calls were connected by an operator, and many subscribers were on party lines. This made legislation hard. Simply “listening” couldn’t be forbidden, since many individuals had legitimate reasons to listen or could do so incidentally.
“Eavesdropping was a feature of telephony from the beginning,” Georgetown University’s Brian Hochman observes in The Listeners, a history of American wiretapping. “Customer privacy was an invented ideal that came later.”
Attitudes toward wiretapping evolved too. Soldiers on both sides of the Civil War had engaged extensively in the practice, and newspapers depicted their actions as beneficial, even heroic. But in peacetime, tapping was seen as the province of con men, blackmailers, and other disreputable types.
These wiretappers came up with many creative scams. A common technique was a gambling swindle: The con man would intercept the results of a horse race in another city before they could be communicated to a bookmaker, then place a bet on those results. Given delays in communication, it was easier to finesse a late bet than you might imagine—especially before the Standard Time Act of 1918 established a national system of time zones. An alternative angle was industrial espionage, trading stocks based on information gleaned from corporate communications.
Yet another scam was simply to claim to be involved i
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