War Virtually: The Quest to Automate Conflict, Militarize Data, and Predict the Future
Roberto González
University of California Press, $29.95 (cloth)

The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States
Brian Hochman
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

Fictional spy stories tend to follow a formula. Within the first few pages the protagonist is assigned a mission by an espionage agency or covert military unit. The mission is impossible for just anyone to carry out, requiring access to high-tech weaponry, disposable income, and combat training out of reach for most readers. (This is part of the thrill.) After a few hundred pages, much bloodshed, and byzantine plot twists, the protagonist will have gathered enough intelligence—and killed the right people—to defuse a bomb or sabotage a hit team. When the protagonist succeeds, the story ends.

Searing critiques of political violence are easier to stomach when the culprits are opaque institutions.

Real-life spy stories are not so thrilling, much less as cut and dry. These days automated systems have replaced secret agents. The protagonists of state-sanctioned surveillance are cybersecurity experts hacking into smart phones’ operating systems from a suburban office park, Microsoft engineers refining a biometric camera’s algorithm from their home office, and plain-clothes soldiers parsing through geolocation data for someone else to carry out a drone strike. Most of the people involved are not called agents or spies. They are product managers, engineers, data analysts, or “intelligence researchers.” Often their work feels so ordinary they might forget they are in the business of espionage. Sometimes they might not even realize it to begin with.

Two recent books—Brian Hochman’s The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States and Roberto González’s War Virtually: The Quest to Automate Conflict, Militarize Data, and Predict the Future—join a cascade of new titles on the genealogy, impact, and future of contemporary surveillance regimes. Hochman and González set themselves apart by moving away from the usual protagonists: amoral CEOs selling spyware to dictators or sinister government agencies monopolizing power. Instead, both authors are concerned with the regular people whose ordinary aspirations drive the expansion of surveillance. These carefully researched books focus on petty criminals who spy on the state, social scientists who think robots will redeem civilization’s shortcomings, and data analysts seduced by the high salaries of Silicon Valley. By telling their stories, Hochman and González shows how surveillance thrives less on the machinations of evil men than on the pedestrian facts of political economy.

The Listeners tells the history of wiretapping in the United States through ordinary biographies. “Wherever possible, this book is centered on people,” Hochman writes in the introduction. “In part, this is to counteract the long-standing tendency in surveillance studies to grant extraordinary agency to agencies”—the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Instead he looks to the lives of regular criminals, businessmen, spies, and innovators. His story begins with D. C. Williams, an infamous Californian convict. Williams was thrown in jail for intercepting corporate communication, selling the information to stock traders, and amassing millions via illicit espionage. Williams may sound like the cybercriminals of today, who regularly hack into corporate servers and defraud financial markets, but he was actually the first person to be convicted of intercepting electronic messages in America: “The year—and here’s the twist to the story—was 1864.”

The Listeners resurrects figures like Williams in order to underscore that “surveillance is, and always has been a constitutive element of our communications ecosystem.” Wiretappers arrived on the scene around the Civil War, with soldiers tapping into electric cables as soon as they began transmitting wartime communication. Electronic listening spread from military campaigns to criminal pursuits and then to the arsenal of local law enforcement. In 1895, around the time municipal telephone companies established networks in New York City, mob bosses and police forces rented out vacant offices to set up eavesdropping nests. They paid a host of freelance listeners to sit hunched over telephone receivers, listening in on private phone calls across the city. Many received special technical training in signal intelligence during their time in the army and were eager to cash in on their skills.

The early wiretapping efforts of state agents and criminals, Hochman emphasizes, were piecemeal, experimental, and usually not quite illegal. The Supreme Court would not rule on the legality of warrantless wiretapping until 1928, even as electronic espionage became widespread in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Police often outsourced surveillance to private firms that were better at acting criminal. Men like William Burns, a U.S. secret agent turned private detective, sold high-tech espionage services to the highest bidder. Akin to contemporary boutique surveillance firms, Burns marketed new technologies—operated by elite teams of professional listeners stowed away in makeshift offices across major cities—to law enforcement agencies and private citizens alike. His firm solved a cascade of high-profile cases throughout the country, plastering headlines with news of their cutting-edge spy tools. Burns also made the public privy to novel surveillance tech by writing and directing a number of plays that revolved around the themes of privacy and espionage. By the time the Supreme Court limited law enforcement’s right to tap into phone lines or intercept telegraphs, the right to privacy was a matter of much public contention. So began a century of legal debates in a new age of networked communications.

Slowly and surely, Hochman reveals, other government agencies took up wiretapping. During World War II military scientists invented the transistor, a semiconductor device that paved the way for miniature recording devices smaller than sugar cubes and thinner than postage stamps to flood espionage markets. In the 1950s the eavesdropping industry was growing exponentially, led by men who sold private detectives and the FBI fantastic new devices called “bugs.” Martini olives equipped with embedded microphones, cigarette boxes that double as covert listening machines, and mini recording gadgets hidden in picture frames. Popular news outlets lauded those churning out new spy technologies as “wondrous, almost godlike” while also warning of an “American bugging epidemic” that threatened individual privacy.

Today we have new words for eavesdropping over new mediums. Encrypted messaging applications transmit conversations that can be “hacked,” “infected,” or “bugged” by advanced technologies named after Greek legends or Hollywood blockbusters: Pegasus, Phantom, and Predator. Private surveillance firms develop and market complex systems that can clandestinely transmit the entire contents of a smartphone to a distant server. Media outlets worldwide are tracking the spread of these technologies, used by governments against criminals, heads of state,  journalists, and human rights defenders alike. Lately, both reporters and academics have warned that we have entered a new era of human history marked by pervasive surveillance.

High-tech surveillance extends state power precisely because so many of us are bound up in it—whether we want to be or not.

The Listeners is most useful for reminding us of the striking parallels between past and present surveillance regimes. Take, for example, recent news surrounding the FBI’s dealings in contraband cyberweapons. In June 2019 three young Israeli computer engineers flew from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to New York City. According to the New York Times, they were dispatched by the NSO Group to test the Israeli spyware firms’ new flagship product—Phantom—for the FBI. The warehouse in suburban New Jersey was perhaps a less exciting place for a sales pitch than their last business trips: most made a career traveling to fortified government buildings across North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Over the next few days the engineers hacked into spare phones FBI agents had purchased from local stores with the NSO Group’s trademark zero-click hacking tool. For a hefty price, the United States government could break into and transfer every single component of a smart phone’s operating system—encrypted chats, emails, audio, and video recordings—to a private server miles away.

Revelations of the FBI’s involvement with the NSO Group provoked a scandal. The start-up was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2021, barred from doing business with U.S based entities, and sued for millions by Meta and Apple; hundreds of employees have been laid off, and the group is now reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet the pattern is nothing new: as Hochman documents, the U.S. government has outsourced surveillance to military-trained technologists since the early twentieth century. Then, as now, government agencies struggled to keep up with the pace of technological development. The open floor plans and stocked mini-fridges of today’s offensive cybersecurity start-ups bear little resemblance to the listening-nests law enforcement officials set up in New York City office buildings, but their function is essentially the same. Both carry out extralegal espionage on behalf of government agencies that lack the technological infrastructure and people power to do so themselves. Instead of William Burns’s legendary “Detectifone,” we have the NSO Group’s Pegasus, the white-winged stallion of Greek legends.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Precedents do not make the present any less dire, of course. New surveillance technologies are consolidating  state-corporate power at the expense of those already dispossessed by centuries of racial capitalism and colonial exploitation. Hochman underscores this legacy of racism in the final section of The Listeners. By the 1960s, Cold War anti-communism and anti-radicalism spurred the FBI, CIA, and law enforcement agencies across the country to embrace the wholesale surveillance of anti-imperialist and anti-racist activists. “Punitive ideas about policing and crime,” Hochman writes, “helped drive the normalization of wiretapping in America.” Once seen as a criminal endeavor, electronic espionage gradually became synonymous with keeping law and order, an imperative that stifled mainstream movements for a right to privacy.  COINTELPRO gave way to the militarized policing of the War on Drugs, which transformed into today’s post-9/11 surveillance state.

Yet Hochman’s central point is that we should not describe today’s surveillance state as monolithic. The moral of The Listeners’s 150-year history is what Hochman calls the devastating “banality of electronic surveillance in America.” Espionage was and remains dependent on technologies so central to everyday life they appear mundane—and it has always hinged on the work of ordinary people who, for better or worse, often consider their labor anything but extraordinary. Today, high-tech surveillance perniciously extends state power precisely because so many of us are bound up in its mechanizations, whether we want to be or not.

Hannah Arendt made a similar point sixty years ago when she famously reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, remarking on the “banality of evil.” The term has become a catch-all cliché in the decades since, and Hochman does not cite her, perhaps for fear of drawing false equivalencies between National Socialism and contemporary surveillance states. Yet Arendt’s insights into the mechanizations of violence are quite pertinent in the digital age. Often, she wrote, the most destructive regimes are sustained by “the administrative machinery” of men, those who, perhaps obstinately, “never realize” what they have done; lethal policies could be implemented by those simply showing up in an office and filing papers day after day.

In similar fashion, The Listeners helps us to see that much of the labor that goes into even the most destructive kinds of surveillance is mostly unremarkable. Military intelligence operatives often compare combing through geolocation data for determining drone strikes to working a desk job at any other civilian technology company. The NSO Group’s recently deposed CEO, Shalev Hulio, liked to describe selling surveillance weapons in more quotidian terms, as on par with managing a car dealership. “If Mercedes sells someone a car,” he told the Israeli news site Israel Hayom last summer, “then a drunk gets in the car, runs over someone, and kills him. Does anyone blame the Mercedes dealership?”

Perhaps this is why even the most scathing insider accounts of Silicon Valley—such as Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley (2020)describe how white-collar workers built up surveillance  capitalism in between free yoga classes and trips to well-stocked mini-fridges. Many laborers who spent a decade scraping personal data from smart phones and tracking users across online platforms viewed their work as any other service, one easily provided in exchange for generous benefits and high salaries.

In War Virtually, Gonzalez probes the aspirations of those at the heart of America’s  militarized technology sectors: he does so to warn readers of a near future where dragnet surveillance and automated warfare erodes democracy and human life. González, a cultural anthropologist, scaffolds his analysis with character sketches of the social scientists, career generals, and Silicon Valley CEOs driving the development of virtual warfare. His six meticulously documented chapters underscore the reach of America’s war industries, spanning issues that have garnered significant press coverage, academic analysis, and public concern over the past two decades: the development of lethal autonomous weapons, militarized predictive modeling, high-tech psy-ops, and cyber warfare.

The book’s anthropological lens is valuable, but it is less novel than González makes it out to be: he fails to cite many ethnographers, historians, and journalists who have already provided robust and accessible analyses of these topics, from Darren Byler’s ethnographic account of digital dispossession in Xinxiang to Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai’s investigative reporting on the consumer and government spyware industries. The claim to novelty is also undermined by the book’s clichéd narrative arc, according to which technological development is thrusting humankind into a dystopian future in which wars are waged by killer robots and AI bots run amok. “War 4.0 is upon us,” González warns. “Science fiction appears to be on the verge of becoming science fact.” A central assumption of War Virtually is that all things related to the military are to be distrusted, but the book never quite explains why. In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s investment arm named after the James Bond franchise, buys up start-ups specializing in everything from genetic sequencing to data mining. Psychology professors receive Pentagon funding to walk soldiers through trust exercises with robots deployed in combat. Hundreds of recently minted engineering PhDs employed by the Pentagon produce models capable of predicting social unrest and political instability anywhere in the world. These are important facts, but the precise stakes of these developments—binding the U.S. economy to the continuation of bloody wars waged abroad and militarized policing at home, for example—are never hashed out.

Blaming it all on “techno-optimism” misses the material rewards that attract workers.

A more illuminating narrative arc emerges tacitly from González’s case studies. The book is most interesting when it is ethnographic, fleshing out the people driving the development of new technologies. One such character is Adam Russell, a Duke rugby star, anthropology major, Rhodes scholar, and researcher at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In the early 2000s Russell wrote a dissertation at Oxford on masculinity, steroids, self-optimization, and weightlifting in southern England. A few years later he found himself penning research reports on biotechnology and performance enhancement among combat soldiers for the Pentagon. Russell quickly ascended the ranks of national security research, underscoring the necessity of qualitative research when assessing human and machine intelligence. By the late 2010s Russell was heading counterterror research units, feeding contextualized knowledge about specific cultures into big-data sets for future armed conflict.

Russell, González tells us, epitomizes the pivotal role scientists play in the automation of war. His dissertation is “insightful” and “unconventional,” demonstrating the utility of collecting vast quantities of sociocultural data to feed into predictive policing modeling and war simulations. Russell’s DARPA initiatives are also “shrewd,” exemplifying the “extreme reductionism” that flattens “ambiguous and elusive social constructs to simple variables that can be quantified and ultimately fed into computer models”—all supposedly for “the protection of the free world.” Russel stands in for the hundreds of other social scientists and engineers driving the expansion of dragnet surveillance—intercepting communications, mining social media feeds, parsing through drone footage—behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. They are all too easily seduced by “techno-optimism,” González says: the conviction that “scientific and technical innovations will eventually resolve complex social, economic, and environmental problems.”

Characters like Russell appear only partially developed in War Virtually, however; they rarely speak for themselves. González draws from an impressive number of interviews with military veterans, Silicon Valley engineers, and military researchers, yet the book includes few references to these conversations and even fewer direct quotes; when these figures do appear, they mainly serve as a literary device. Military researchers and corporate engineers are the malicious practitioners of new “dark arts,” González writes. They are embedded within “totalitarian institutions” bent on molding “the ideas, attitudes, and behaviors of audiences captured by their compulsions.” The risks posed by new technologies should not be understated, but their power should not be overstated, either. There is no black magic involved in the development of militarized surveillance technologies—just the expenditure of too many government resources that could be earmarked for combating climate change or universal health care.

The disjuncture between the technology industry’s breathless innocence and Silicon Valley’s long and well-documented ties to the military is striking. Yet blaming it all on misplaced techno-optimism distracts from the systems of exploitation and profit-making that shape ordinary people’s aspirations. Techno-optimism certainly pulses through corporate tech campuses, designed to make every employee feel limitless but also like they are making the world a better place. But most who spend years inside Silicon Valley recount how these early seductions—company mottos pledging to “do no evil,” kombucha on tap, and compost bins—mostly give way to an insidious lack of reflexivity amid almost excessive material extravagance. As Wiener has put it, the majority of tech workers are not going to the office every day thinking they are morally superior or saving the world. They are largely cashing in on six- or seven-figure salaries, buying up property, and enjoying existential stability in an era marked by financial, climatic, and political precarity. “It can be easy to lose oneself in a company, undergo a sort of identity transfer,” Wiener has said. “It’s very seductive.”

Recently, some tech workers seem to be regaining a critical reflexivity. Since the late 2010s headlines have announced Silicon Valley’s “political awakening,” and every few years demands are made that companies cancel lucrative contracts with militaries and police forces. In 2018, for example, Google engineers refused to develop a security tool for Project Maven, which supplied the U.S. military with AI-powered drone imagery technology. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” they wrote in a petition that garnered thousands of signatures. Microsoft engineers condemned the sale of virtual reality headsets to the military for combat training just a year later, in 2019. “We did not sign up to develop weapons,” said those who spent years developing augmented reality technology. “And we demand a say in how our work is being used.” In 2021 dissent mounted across Google and Amazon when news surfaced of $1.2. billion agreement to supply Israel and its military with artificial intelligence tools and other computing services. Whistleblowers described the dehumanizing effects of technologies that could identify faces, movements, emotions, and even determine if someone is lying when deployed by an occupying army. As one Palestinian developer at Google recently put it to the New York Times, “Project Nimbus makes me feel like I am making my living off my family’s oppression.” There is growing awareness that one’s ethical commitments do not, and perhaps never did, cohere with the product of one’s labor.

Commentators say this realization was variously spurred by the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the United States, a public reckoning with how contemporary capitalism hinges on pervasive surveillance, and the stark human toll of militarized policing—from the United States to Palestine. Whatever it is, more and more employees are realizing that the salaries they enjoyed for years came with a dangerous kind of alienation. Dissent is now cutting through some of the most powerful companies in the world, where non-disclosure agreements and generous benefits have historically dissuaded critique.

There is no black magic involved—just too many government resources that could be earmarked for climate change or health care instead.

It is important to keep asking how those within even the most cushioned corporate settings become compelled to take this kind of political action. The answers could bolster nascent movements for institutional and wide-reaching change. In less than a decade, technology workers have founded groups like Tech Workers Coalition, Stop Killer Robots, and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. It is unlikely these organizations will singlehandedly bring about an end to automated warfare, pervasive surveillance, and punitive policing. But pragmatically speaking, such movements have made efforts to regulate artificial intelligence and new surveillance technologies mainstream in just a few years. The impact is so monumental that even War Virtually, with its pervasive tone of dystopia, cannot help but end on an optimistic note. “A relatively small but growing group of engineers, researchers, and scientists,” González reminds his readers by way of conclusion, “are pushing back against tech executives’ willingness to meet the Defense Department’s virtual warfare needs.”

They have predecessors worth recalling today. The dangers of a militarized technology sector have long been challenged by those who wind up developing potentially lethal systems. In the 1970s computer operators and engineers assembled under the banner of “Computer People for Peace” from New York to the Bay Area. Many had been radicalized by the anti-war movement and saw their labor as directly fueling the war in Vietnam. In response, they spearheaded “consciousness raising” among their reclusive colleagues, protested Honeywell Aerospace for developing bombs, and condemned the “corporate racism” of International Business Machine’s (IBM) dealings with apartheid South Africa. Critical accounts of Silicon Valley’s ascendance, including Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), demonstrate how neoliberal market reforms and the misplaced utopianism of the early digital age diluted this political consciousness. In this sense, the growing number of engineers, developers, and researchers protesting the business of militarism today is better framed as a political reawakening. Amplifying the narratives of those at the heart of these efforts can make a future of dragnet surveillance and automated warfare less inevitable. At the very least, it might compel others to follow in their footsteps.

Searing critiques of political violence are easier to stomach when the culprits are opaque institutions. It is more difficult to apprehend just how absurdly quotidian the business of surveillance is—and always has been. Perhaps this is because its impact remains extraordinary for those who have been subjected to decades of punitive policing or military occupation. The Israeli military deploys facial recognition technologies across Palestine that erode ordinary citizens’ last vestiges of privacy: women say cameras peer directly into homes and children report being misidentified and detained. Black Lives Matter protesters in New York and Minneapolis are thrown in jail after being tracked across social media feeds and through city streets by data scraping platforms and police drones. The repressive effects of new surveillance technologies are most pronounced for those already racialized as potential terrorists and criminals.

But combating these extraordinary impacts requires recognizing their very ordinary origins. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon partner with a biometric start-up, Oosto, whose cameras identify and monitor Palestinians in major cities and checkpoints across the occupied West Bank. Developers at Microsoft prototype the police drones which U.S. law enforcement use to surveil prominent protestors in the Movement for Black Lives. Some may be heartened to hear that technology giants and universities are committing to antiracist platforms and human rights–oriented agendas, banning the sale of certain facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments or suing boutique cyberespionage firms for hacking corporate servers. Yet these one-off efforts are largely cosmetic. The economic incentives that draw so many workers into the business of surveillance remain in place.

In their analysis of this stubborn fact, The Listeners and War Virtually remind us that the stories we tell about surveillance matter. It is tempting to blame our present of pervasive government espionage and automated warfare on a sinister surveillance state. The truth is more banal—and perhaps more difficult to face.