The History of Wiretapping, Through the Years

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Wiretapping was in the news in a big way this weekend, but how much do we really know about the practice? Here’s a look back on how it’s developed over the years: 

1664: British physicist develops the tin can telephone, communicating sound through a string (which is kind of like a wire). Upon making the discovery, Hooke turned to his assistant and said, “I wonder if one day the FBI will use this to figure out if MLK had an affair?”

1892: U.S. law enforcement adopts wiretapping as a tool for getting information. It’s a huge development in particular for Chicago detective Billy Peterson, who has an affinity for both spying on people, wires, and compulsively tapping his fingers.

1918: Anthropomorphic, human-sized wire known as Wire “Tappy” Tap becomes a huge silent star in Hollywood, starring in several silent movies where he tap dances. His hits include “Did You Miss Me Wire I Was Away (1918), Bird on a Wire (Tap) (1920), and How Is This Possible? How Have I, A Simple Wire, Somehow Achieved Not Just Life, But Also Sentience? Must Have Been That Time I Was Struck by Lightning, Like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (1923).

1928: The U.S. Supreme Court deems wiretapping constitutional, mainly to aid in enforcing Prohibition. If they’d known this would eventually lead to Boardwalk Empire’s disastrous fifth and final season, they may have reconsidered.

1963: Attorney General Bobby Kennedy gives the FBI the go ahead to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones at his home and work office. The most shocking discovery? Guy had an unhealthy hatred of carrots. Didn’t just hate the taste, but would get viscerally angry if anyone else brought ’em around.

1968: Richard Nixon approves the wiretapping of several journalists and 13 government officials. This was so flagrantly illegal and immoral it really drives home how Watergate was the, “You Can’t Top That!”/”Hold my beer” of political scandals.

2001-2007: It’s reported the NSA has participated in “warrantless surveillance” of the American people. Prior to this, everyone just assumed Warrantless Surveillance was probably the name of one of those Steven Seagal movies from the 80’s where he’s an ex-Navy SEAL turned chef, or teacher, or something.

2013: It’s revealed that the NSA has wiretapped the phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel since 2010. The NSA apologizes, saying that at the time they went on a real “anti-German” kick having just watched Inglorious Basterds.

2017: In a tweet, the current president accuses the last one of tapping his phones. Rumor has it President Obama did it not for political reasons, but to study Trump’s voice to perfect his Trump impression. Right now it’s just him saying, “YUGE” and “BUH-LIEVE ME” over and over.

While you’re here: sign up for my email list. I swear I won’t tap your phone. 

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