The Conversnitch

Wired published an article yesterday about Kyle McDonald and Brian House, two artists who recently constructed an eavesdropping device that resembles a household light bulb. When plugged into a lamp or light fixture, the aptly named “Conversnitch” has the ability to listen in on a nearby conversation and then post its contents to a live Twitter feed.

According to the artists involved in the project, the basic idea is to raise awareness about contemporary threats to privacy. “You can’t make this stuff up anymore,” McDonald explains, taking care to note the beginning of the project coincided with Edward Snowden’s NSA document leak. “Here were Brian and I trying to make something kind of scary, something that makes you wonder if someone’s watching you all the time. And then Snowden says, ‘They are.’” Follow @conversnitch and you’ll see that the project does a pretty good job of what it sets out to do.

Aside from the obvious questions about electronic surveillance that McDonald and House want to raise, the coverage in Wired made me think about the cultural processes that allow us—force us, even—to encounter old technologies as somehow new and unprecedented. The Conversnitch is an excellent case in point.  The article presents the artists’ work as evidence of what’s suddenly possible in the world of eavesdropping today. “Now a whole crowd of amateur eavesdroppers could be as close as the nearest light fixture,” we discover.  The device is “just a taste of the real privacy threats facing Americans in an age of the sweeping NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden.”

Such statements are accurate only up to a point. What’s misleading here—if I can borrow the article’s language for rhetorical effect—is that eavesdroppers have been as close as the nearest light fixture for more than 60 years now.  Devices like the Conversnitch have actually been around since the early 1950s, when the introduction of electronic transmitters and transistors in the United States made it easier for engineers to miniaturize listening devices. Microphones got smaller in this period, which made it easier to conceal them in places that the uninitiated would never have dreamed.

In a 1949 article article for the Saturday Evening Post, a former government agent named William Mellin admitted to bugging a stuffed moose head in an income tax case.*

Here’s a partial list of everyday objects that government agents, private investigators, and electronics experts managed to bug during the 1950s, culled from the sources I’ve been working with over the past few months:

television set
picture frame
flower vase
wall socket
bar of soap
tie clip
cigarette box
cigarette lighter
table lighter
martini glass
stuffed moose head

The list reveals a lot about how buggers bugged in the 1950s, and who it was that they were listening to. (SMOKERS BEWARE!) But the lesson here should be clear: the Conversnitch merely updates an eavesdropping technology that’s more than half a century old.  The only truly “new” thing here is the device’s ability to transcribe a nearby conversation onto a live Twitter feed. Which is of course totally crazy. But to present the device as indicative of a unprecedented state of affairs is simply a case of selective historical memory.

*William Mellin, as told to Meyer Berger, “I Was a Wire Tapper,” Saturday Evening Post (September 19, 1949), 57.

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