The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States

Brian Hochman. Harvard Univ., $35 (336p) ISBN 978-0-674-24928-8
Georgetown University English professor Hochman (Savage Preservation) explores in this fascinating history how wiretapping by U.S. law enforcement agencies went from a “dirty business” to a “standard investigative tactic.” Meticulously combing through Supreme Court opinions, trial transcripts, and even pulp fiction, Hochman traces how political, corporate, and popular opinions of wiretapping evolved from the invention of the telegraph in the mid–19th century through the war on drugs in the 1990s, when Congress passed legislation requiring phone companies “to build technical surveillance capacities” into their networks and granting law enforcement access to call location data. Contending that today’s “regime of ubiquitous backdoor surveillance” wasn’t inevitable, Hochman notes a major shift in the late 1960s when civil rights protests and racial uprisings in the Watts neighborhood of L.A.; Newark, N.J.; and other U.S. cities sparked a conservative backlash that led to the implementation of “repressive law enforcement policies,” including wiretapping, aimed largely at communities of color. Hochman lucidly explains complex legal matters and fills the book with such intriguing yet little-known characters as Jim Vaus, an LAPD wiretapper turned Christian evangelist, who shot to fame with tales of his “bugging exploits” in the 1950s. This is an essential and immersive look at “what happens when we sideline privacy concerns in the interest of profit motives and police imperatives.” (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 11/12/2021
Release date: 03/01/2022
Genre: Nonfiction
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