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Before It Was Your Phone

The NSA's eavesdropping and data-gathering may be unsettling, but it's only recently that we've begun to think of our telephone conversations as personal and private.
An 1896 telephone from Sweden. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

An 1896 telephone from Sweden. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Last week The Guardianreported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, and has been since April.

Critics hastened to point out that this behavior was totally legal under the Patriot Act. Furthermore, President Obama explained, the NSA was collecting only information about American’s phone records, who they called and how long the conversations lasted. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said. As Mark Rogowsky wrote at Forbes, however, the government could probably do that if it were so inclined. Or it could, you know, "quite literally ... watch your ideas form as you type."

The legal, or ethical, implications of this are debatable, but many maintained that this seemed troubling. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon called the collection of Verizon phone records a "massive invasion of Americans' privacy." Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan of Florida complained, "The American people don't want the government snooping into their private lives."

This is an understandable feeling: Why are your phone conversations anyone else’s business? But the notion of phone conversations as private, or even personal, is a very recent development.

Alexander Graham Bell won the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876. A year later the United Stated began building the first telephone lines. But no one thought of the telephone as a personal device. It was a way of transferring a message from one place to another, for sure, but not necessarily a person-to-person message, more like a public notice. As telecommunications designer Frederique Krupa wrote in 1992:

The public telephone demonstrations that Bell took on the road—to raise public awareness, finance his work, and appease his backers—presented the telephone as a broadcasting system, i.e. a radio-concept of telephony.

Watson would read the news from a nearby city, or for large venues, professional musicians and singers would entertain audiences  hundreds of miles away, over the telegraph lines.

After the 1930s, and rural electrification programs, many American households had telephones but several customers were connected to a telephone line through a single loop. It was called a party line (an odd term for what was going on there, suggesting as it does booze or cake and ice cream, though it actually comes from the full name, “multiparty line”), and sometimes there were several dozen people on the same system. Customers could speak for five minutes or so, and then someone else would need the line. A user would typically have to connect to an operator to make a long distance call.

It wasn’t a personal line. The phone would ring, and then there would be a number of beeps indicating whom on the line the call was actually for. If it was you you’d pick up, but you weren’t the only one who could pick up. Anyone in the system could hear your conversation.

According to the majority opinion in Lee v. Florida, a Supreme Court case about monitoring of party lines decided in 1968, “the police cannot be deemed to have ‘intercepted’ the telephone conversations, because people who use party lines should realize that their conversations might be overheard.”

Sure, it was slightly bad manners for Mr. O’Leary to listen in on Mrs. Reidey’s conversation with her sister, or her doctor, but Mrs. Reidey was under no illusion that her conversation was secret. She knew that anything she said was really for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Even after we’d done away with the party line—urban areas in the '40s, and most of the country by the end of the '60s—Americans still did not think of their telephones as personal. You did not customize it or put stickers on it. With the Bell System, which provided virtually all telephone service in the United States until 1984, you didn’t even own it. The phone itself was the property of the company. You merely paid to use it.

We’ve very quickly grown accustomed to the idea of our phones as our personal devices. We use them to call friends and family, conduct business, check email, take photos (some of them inappropriate for public consumption). Even the idea of sharing your phone seems a little odd. We might occasionally allow a close friend to check messages or look up a number if we’re driving or something, but your device is a private one.

But it wasn’t all that long ago, even as little as eight or 10 years ago perhaps, that you probably shared a phone. My college roommate and I shared a phone for a year. I took information from his sister, his parents, and his high school friends. He took messages from my out-of-state girlfriend. People sometimes left embarrassing personal details on our machine. Once a month we divided up the bill based on who we called and how much it cost.

Before this you likely remember an earlier, and dramatically less private, time where you shared a phone with your entire family. Your mother knew who you were talking to and how long you talked. If you tried to dial someone you knew far away it got expensive and you got in trouble. If your brother picked up the extension (and breathed in a way so that you couldn’t hear him) and stayed on while you were talking he could hear your whole conversation and possibly use the details he gleamed from it against you in the future. It was not your phone, your mother would argue. The whole family used it.

In the office, before the arrival of the direct line, an administrative assistant would direct staff calls. She knew who called the employees and when. And her boss could direct her to transfer no calls from particular people in. Just take down the message (does anyone still make these anymore?) and he would return it when he had time.

It’s really mobile technology that makes our phones seem personal. As Richard Frenkiel, who helped develop the nation’s first cellular system and is currently a visiting professor at WINLAB, the Wireless Information Networks Laboratory at Rutgers University, explains:

The evolution to the tiny pocket phones of today has had tremendous significance. A telephone attached to an automobile may provide great utility (and in fact was an extremely popular service), but was still a location-based phone rather than a “personal” device. In the 1980s, when we called a car phone, it was because we expected someone to be in a particular vehicle. We might have called a home or office with the same expectation. Today, when we dial a cell phone, we are calling a particular person, and may not know or care whether that person is home or across the country. This is the essence of personal communications.

The introduction of the Patriot Act of 2001 has allowed for vast government control of Americans’ private lives. It allows the FBI to force anyone (doctors, librarians, Internet service providers) to turn over records about customers and users, without evidence that the user is suspected of any criminal misconduct or an "agent of a foreign power." But as far as “big brother is listening” goes, it’s just very recently that we came to believe phones were supposed to be private. They certainly never were before.

This sort of makes sense, but historically the expectation of privacy is essentially made up. It’s true that government monitoring of telephone calls is somewhat invasive, but 80 years ago the belief that a phone conversation was private made about as much sense as assuming that something you shouted to your neighbor across your back yard was private; it wasn’t. Everyone could hear. Turns out they may still be listening.