Karin Bijsterveld

“Hearing and Seeing Voices: Speaker Identification at the Stasi”

Abstract: “The Lives of Others,” a film released in 2006, has informed a wide audience on the practices of eavesdropping on telephone calls and private conversations in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). By the end of the 1980s, GDR’s Ministry of State Security (Stasi) had developed such a fine-grained infrastructure that it was able to execute 20,000 wiretapping and eavesdropping actions in East-Berlin at one and the same time. This frantic activity required specific techniques such as the use of automatic recording technologies. Moreover, from the 1960s onward, the GDR worked together with the USSR on the issue of how to identify speakers by the characteristics of their recorded voice, as Stasi employees did not always know whom they were listening to. This resulted in a voice data bank. Yet how exactly did Stasi staff members make sense of taped voices? Which aspects of voice, noise and language did they consider relevant for their diagnostic purposes? And how did their “sonic skills” become “legitimate” ways of knowing in this context? I will not only answer these questions by referring to the Stasi archives and the Cold War, but also by showing how the Stasi built its concepts of auditory knowledge, such as voiceprints and hearing collectives, on visual ones like fingerprints and eyewitnesses. Despite its local legitimacy, however, the Stasi’s speaker identification program ran into many problems, one of which concerned the retrieval of information. This gives food for thought on modern-day forms of eavesdropping.

Bio: Karin Bijsterveldis an historian and professor in the Department of Technology and Society Studies, Maastricht University. She is author of Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 2008), and co-editor (with José van Dijck) of Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices (Amsterdam University Press, 2009). With Trevor Pinch, she has co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford University Press, 2012). She coordinated several funded projects at the crossroads of STS and Sound Studies, and has been awarded a NWO-VICI grant for the project “Sonic Skills: Sound and Listening in Science, Technology and Medicine.” She has edited Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage (Transcript Verlag, 2013), and is co-author (with Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs and Gijs Mom) of Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel (Oxford University Press, 2014).