Skip to Content

Who’s Listening to Your Calls?

“More wiretapping is going on than people realize or even like to think about,” warned a 1980 article on surveillance.
August 21, 2013

Excerpted from “Telephone Technology and Privacy,” by Oliver G. Selfridge and Robert T. Schwartz, in the May 1980 issue of Technology Review.

May 1980 issue of TR

The telephone is fundamental to communication in society. The public has a right to expect that these communications are and will be private. That expectation is not being fulfilled. We cannot rely on telephone company assurances that everything is all right. Everything is not all right, and the public would need protection even if it were.

Perhaps 50 percent of U.S. telephones are now served by electronic switching systems (ESS), in which messages are transmitted electronically under computer control. Soon after the first electronic switching system exchanges went into service in 1966, we discovered that the ‘test board’ typically associated with an ESS exchange could become a powerful tool to an eavesdropper.

The Wall Street Journal, for example (October 5, 1973), quoted a New Jersey assistant prosecutor: ‘We use a system where you can effectively sit in your home and monitor any phone in the country. You’ll hear everything that transpires over that number.’

The general effect of this new technology is to widen the gap between the communications elite and the public. Most people can easily understand a cord patchboard, in which an operator sits and plugs people’s wires in where lights shine. But few understand a computer program that does the same thing in vastly more complex and comprehensive ways.

With such advances must come an increasingly alert public. People must abandon the attitude that ‘it may be true, but it doesn’t concern me, and I don’t care if my phone is tapped.’ That is said by people who are fairly, if perhaps falsely, sure that their telephones are not tapped. If they discovered that their conversations were being overheard and transcribed, they would almost certainly be outraged.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.
The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.

The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science

A solution to P vs NP could unlock countless computational problems—or keep them forever out of reach.

section of Rima Sharp captured by the LRO
section of Rima Sharp captured by the LRO

The moon didn’t die as early as we thought

Samples from China’s lunar lander could change everything we know about the moon’s volcanic record.

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

ASML machine
ASML machine

Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law

The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.