Cover: The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States, from Harvard University PressCover: The Listeners in HARDCOVER

The Listeners

A History of Wiretapping in the United States

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Product Details


$35.00 • £28.95 • €31.50

ISBN 9780674249288

Publication Date: 03/22/2022

Academic Trade

368 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

30 photos


[This] thoughtful, searching history reminds us that the practice of wiretapping was steeped from the start in lawlessness… Wiretapping, in the public’s mind, was what crooks did… The Listeners does a wonderful job evoking a world shaped by intense distaste for surveillance, even if the sharp emotions that once energized the battle now seem lost to history.—Grayson Clary, Washington Post

Smart, entertaining, and occasionally alarming… Hochman narrates a century and a half of wiretapping, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. What emerges is a powerful prehistory of today’s private sector and government surveillance regimes. Hochman reveals the surprising strength of public resistance to all forms of electronic surveillance until the 1960s. And, crucially, he shows how national leaders used the racial backlash politics of the late 1960s to normalize government eavesdropping and build the world we live in today.—Andrew Lanham, New Republic

A fascinating look at the battle between surveillance and privacy in the United States over the past 150 years.—Harrison Blackman, Los Angeles Review of Books

Chronicles how electronic surveillance became ‘normalized’ in the U.S.… For Hochman, the history of wiretapping ultimately feeds into the larger racial tragedy of mass incarceration and overcriminalization.—Jeannie Suk Gersen, New Yorker

Since 9/11, wiretapping in the United States has largely been viewed as the preserve of the ‘national security state.’ In The Listeners, Brian Hochman suggests a revisionist reading, in which wiretapping is diffused throughout US society, from ‘private ears’ snooping on cheating spouses to corporations fishing for dirt on rivals and police eavesdropping on poor Black communities.—Stephen Phillips, Times Literary Supplement

A fun read… This is a history of uneasiness and discomfort with the way an emerging technology can reshape the nature of private and public life… Show[s] how the United States became a nation of proud ‘freedom lovers’ who also willingly accept Facebook and Google making fortunes from their data. For anyone looking for a prehistory of the ambivalent and paradoxical aspects of American thought around digital surveillance, this is your book.—Rebecca Onion, History Today

The fraught relationship between privacy and security is at the crux of The Listeners, which covers the history of eavesdropping from the Civil War to 9/11. Throughout that long history, the threat—real or imagined—of crime almost invariably took priority over civil liberties. Racist dog whistles shaped surveillance laws in 1968, and people of color historically bore the brunt (and still do) of police surveillance.—Lora Kelly, The Nation

Hochman makes a compelling case that concerns about threats to privacy that had been widely shared by Americans were pushed to the margins by claims that eavesdropping was necessary to enforce Prohibition, defeat drug dealers, prevent race riots, and protect national security… An engaging and informative account of wiretapping in American popular culture.—Glenn C. Altschuler, Psychology Today

[A] fascinating history [of] how wiretapping by U.S. law enforcement agencies went from a ‘dirty business’ to a ‘standard investigative tactic.’… This is an essential and immersive look at ‘what happens when we sideline privacy concerns in the interest of profit motives and police imperatives.’Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Listen carefully to this absorbing history of wiretapping and you’ll hear the tones of today’s surveillance society, a century and a half in the making. Brian Hochman’s splendid book reveals how a once-new technology embedded itself in American life, found novel uses, and shaped areas ranging from police tactics to privacy rights—illuminating in the process the consequences and costs of a networked world.—Sarah E. Igo, author of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Fast-paced, compulsively readable, artfully researched, and historically astute, The Listeners reminds us that Americans once cared about privacy—and that we should too.—Richard R. John, author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

Hochman’s comprehensive and compelling narrative illustrates how the ‘dirty business’ of wiretapping has become a common and iconic feature of American life.—Cyrus Farivar, author of Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech

Brian Hochman’s deeply researched, eminently readable, and intensely timely book excavates the history of electronic surveillance from the telegraph to the planetary infrastructures and corporations that have become inextricable from everyday life. Along the way, he shows how widespread resistance to wiretapping may provide a guide to addressing some of the most urgent questions about the implications of living in a fully connected world.—Trevor Paglen

The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States weaves different kinds of history together in a single, compelling story about the rise of electronic surveillance, police secrecy, and technology. It’s a story about how electronic surveillance has become ordinary and acceptable: how the technology and the uses for the technology developed; then, how ordinary citizens understood and experienced the technology over time.—Claire Potter, author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy

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