The Listeners tells the history of wiretapping in the United States through ordinary biographies. “Wherever possible, this book is centered on people,” Hochman writes in the introduction. “In part, this is to counteract the long-standing tendency in surveillance studies to grant extraordinary agency to agencies”—the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Instead he looks to the lives of regular criminals, businessmen, spies, and innovators. His story begins with D. C. Williams, an infamous Californian convict. Williams was thrown in jail for intercepting corporate communication, selling the information to stock traders, and amassing millions via illicit espionage. Williams may sound like the cybercriminals of today, who regularly hack into corporate servers and defraud financial markets, but he was actually the first person to be convicted of intercepting electronic messages in America: “The year—and here’s the twist to the story—was 1864.”
The Listeners resurrects figures like Williams in order to underscore that “surveillance is, and always has been a constitutive element of our communications ecosystem.” Wiretappers arrived on the scene around the Civil War, with soldiers tapping into electric cables as soon as they began transmitting wartime communication. Electronic listening spread from military campaigns to criminal pursuits and then to the arsenal of local law enforcement. In 1895, around the time municipal telephone companies established networks in New York City, mob bosses and police forces rented out vacant offices to set up eavesdropping nests. They paid a host of freelance listeners to sit hunched over telephone receivers, listening in on private phone calls across the city. Many received special technical training in signal intelligence during their time in the army and were eager to cash in on their skills.