Big Brother Where Art Thou: The Telephone Tap and the Invention of the American Surveillance State, 1965–78

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM
Washington Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Brian Hochman, Georgetown University
This paper considers how wiretapping became synonymous with government surveillance in the United States. For the majority of the twentieth century, wiretapping was practiced as much by private individuals and corporate entities as by police officers and government agencies. Professional eavesdroppers did far more work on divorce cases, for instance, than on matters of national security. This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act (OCCSSA), a law that outlawed all forms of wiretapping outside of the sanctioned investigative activities of state and federal law enforcement agencies. Four years later, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Watergate brought renewed attention to the problem of government eavesdropping in Washington.

As I demonstrate in this paper, it was in this period that the telephone tap began to seem the exclusive province of the state—an image that of course still holds sway today. To trace this momentous shift in popular perception, I examine some of the early congressional actions and court cases that led to the passage of the OCCSSA: the rise and fall of Edward V. Long’s Senate Subcommittee on Invasions of Privacy (1965-1967); the publication of Alan Westin’s influential study Privacy and Freedom (1967); and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions in Berger v. New York (1967) and Katz v. United States (1967). I also consider the OCCSSA's influence on the then-thriving business of private eavesdropping.

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