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The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States (webinar)

April 20, 2022 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

Date:  Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Time: 12:00pm – 1:00pm

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They’ve been listening for longer than you think. A new history reveals how—and why. Wiretapping is nearly as old as electronic communications. Telegraph operators intercepted enemy messages during the Civil War. Law enforcement agencies were listening to private telephone calls as early as 1895. Communications firms have assisted government eavesdropping programs since the early twentieth century—and they have spied on their own customers too. Such breaches of privacy once provoked outrage, but today most Americans have resigned themselves to constant electronic monitoring. How did we get from there to here?

In The Listeners, Brian Hochman shows how the wiretap evolved from a specialized intelligence-gathering tool to a mundane fact of life. He explores the origins of wiretapping in military campaigns and criminal confidence games and tracks the use of telephone taps in the United States government’s wars on alcohol, communism, terrorism, and crime. While high-profile eavesdropping scandals fueled public debates about national security, crime control, and the rights and liberties of individuals, wiretapping became a routine surveillance tactic for private businesses and police agencies alike. From wayward lovers to foreign spies, from private detectives to public officials, and from the silver screen to the Supreme Court, The Listeners traces the long and surprising history of wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping in the United States. Along the way, Hochman considers how earlier generations of Americans confronted threats to privacy that now seem more urgent than ever.

Brian Hochman is Director of American Studies and Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2022), the research for which received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars Program and the John W. Kluge Center at the U.S. Library of Congress. His first book, Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), was named as a finalist for the American Studies Association’s Laura Romero Book Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C.



April 20, 2022
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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