Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Bootlegger, the Wiretap, and the Beginning of Privacy

Nearly a century before a U.S. President accused his predecessor of ordering a “tapp” on his private telephone line, and before he tweeted a warning to the head of the F.B.I. that he had “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations,” a professional spy, armed with a pack of cigarettes and an earpiece, hid in the basement of the Henry Building, in downtown Seattle, catching crackling bits of words being spoken miles away.

Richard Fryant had worked as a wiretapper for the New York Telephone Company, tasked with eavesdropping on his own colleagues, and now took freelance assignments in the Queen City.

On this occasion, he was seeking dirt on Seattle’s corrupt mayor—who was suspected of having ties to Roy Olmstead, a local bootlegger—for a political rival. At the behest of his client, Fryant rigged micro-wires to a certain exchange, ELliott-6785, and began to listen.

“They got that load,” one man said, breathing heavily.

“The hell they did—who?” asked another.

“The federals.”

The men speaking on ELliott-6785 hung up, but the conversation had only just begun... more

Roy Olmstead kicked off a long, twisted, legal trail of litigation, decisions and laws regarding electronic surveillance. It's a trail that hasn't ended yet.