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Wiretaps: Past and Present, Surveillance and Communications


Brian Hochman

My new book project is a cultural history of wiretapping and communications intelligence in the United States.  At this early stage of the game, my working hypothesis is that the history of wiretapping comprises a shadow history of communications in modern America.  Cultural contests over wiretapping, which date back to the 1860s, constitute contests over what it means to communicate in a networked society–a society in which information needs to travel across vast distances, and a society in which technologies of all sorts enable the human voice to traverse them.

Whenever I tell people that I’m starting to work on this project, they tend to ask me about two things: Edward Snowden and state surveillance.  This is understandable.  But it’s also worth explaining why I might want to focus my attentions elsewhere for the time being.

First off, Snowden: a news item that everyone seems to be following closely.  The…

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