The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror / Edition 1

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On a typical day, you might make a call on a cell phone, withdraw money at an ATM, visit the mall, and make a purchase with a credit card. Each of these routine transactions leaves a digital trail for government agencies and businesses to access. As cutting-edge historian and journalist Christian Parenti points out, these everyday intrusions on privacy, while harmless in themselves, are part of a relentless (and clandestine) expansion of routine surveillance in American life over the last two centuries-from controlling slaves in the old South to implementing early criminal justice and tracking immigrants. Parenti explores the role computers are playing in creating a whole new world of seemingly benign technologies-such as credit cards, website "cookies," and electronic toll collection-that have expanded this trend in the twenty-first century. The Soft Cage offers a compelling, vitally important history lesson for every American concerned about the expansion of surveillance into our public and private lives.
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
… as The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror makes clear, Parenti believes that the actions of the federal government since Sept.11 are only the latest in a long line of attempts to limit individual freedom through the use of surveillance. And it's not just government that is the culprit. To Parenti, corporations are just as big an offender. — Vincent J. Cannato
Publishers Weekly
Attempts to keep an eye on Americans are nothing new, Parenti argues in this well-researched albeit pedantic history of ways people have been controlled in the U.S. Relying on the theories of scholar Michel Foucault-who used surveillance and control as two of his central themes-Parenti begins with slavery, focusing on the slave passes that slaveowners used to keep their human property in place. He then moves on to new crime controls, like fingerprinting, that accompanied increased urbanization. Throughout, he emphasizes how new technology has always increased the government's ability to spy on its citizens. So it's no surprise that the current rise in technology comes in for special criticism. Credit cards, ATMs, highway toll passes such as E-ZPass are all tools that the government can employ to curtail freedom. There's a lot of food for thought here (and some troubling aspects of American history brought to light). But Parenti's lens is too sharp and his antigovernment animus too apparent. As he himself admits, most Americans seem to think that some liberties are worth trading in if they bring more security. There's no doubt that books focusing on this topic can be helpful contributions to the national discourse, but when Parenti sees post-September 11 not as a shift toward cracking down on civil liberties but as more of the same, many readers will likely feel he is a bit off base. (Sept. 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Forget about the right of privacy and the Fourth Amendment. So writes activist scholar Parenti (Lockdown America, not reviewed) in this informative account of governmental and corporate surveillance in America. Government spying on its citizenry is nothing new, the author explains, deftly sketching the evolution of surveillance from slave passes to mug books to tracking devices worn by parolees. But its steady growth, the sophistication of its sources and tactics, the infection of overt surveillance by strategies from covert operations, is perhaps a good deal greater than the reader might realize. While the author deploys Foucault and Althusser to help us understand the culture of obedience, the kernel that most readers will find worth gnawing is Justice Brandeis’s plea for "the right to be left alone." Parenti sharply explores the gray area between protection and invasion of privacy, in particular the way in which fear, patriotic vigor, and pop-cultural nonchalance (witness reality TV) can facilitate political and commercial misuse of the data highway. The sheer scope of surveillance, from smart cards to microchip implants, is, in his view, giving rise to an ultra-trusting, super-obedient postmodern subject for whom the issue of privacy is moot: "Underlying this question of obedience is the implicit assumption that state, corporate, and parental powers are infallible." Yet, he points out, political and corporate means serve political and corporate ends, and their price tags can be exorbitant: racism, exploitation, manipulation. There is vulnerability in social anonymity, the author acknowledges, but such items as the USA Patriot Act undermine the notional freedoms that distinguish ademocracy just as much as the freedom of speech. Parenti presents an argument resting on trust of the individual over the expedience of political and cultural criteria that determine insiders and outsiders. He reminds us that privacy protects, as democracy is meant to, the marginalized, the outcast, and the different. Gives you a good stiff shake.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465054855
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/22/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 286
  • Sales rank: 494,829
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Christian Parenti is the author of Lockdown America. His writing appears regularly in The Nation, the San Diego Union Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics and is currently a Soros Senior Justice Fellow at the Open Society Institute and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Place, Culture and Politics, CUNY Graduate Center. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2003 Christian Parenti
All right reserved.

Chapter One


First thing when I wake up and Right before I close my eyes at night I think, sense, feel man like I'm under some kind of microscope Satellites over my head, transmitters in my dollas Hawkin', watchin', scopin', jockin' Scrutinizin' me, checkin' to see what I'm doin' Where I be, who I see, how and where and with whom I make my money What is this? Excuse me Miss May I have your phone number and your social security? Who me? When all I came to do is buy my double or triple A batteries? Please, I decline - Jill Scott, "Watching Me"

The future is already here. Over the last three decades the prevalence of routine, everyday surveillance has increased to sci-fi proportions. Thanks to the proliferation of computers, databanks, and networks, once distinct spaces of knowledge-credit records here, medical records there, criminal records elsewhere-now form a single, coherent informational landscape that is easily mapped and controlled by government and business. Everywhere, one leaves a trail of digital information; all daily tasks-working, driving, shopping, tending to health now create retrievable records.

Consider this: More than 111 million Americans carry mobile phones, each of which creates a rough electronic account of the user's location in time and space. Cell phones communicate with networks of transmission points that monitor and note a phone's location whenever it is on. These records, stored by phone companies, can be subpoenaed when needed or their aggregate patterns can be "data-mined" for commercial uses. And now, in the age of terror and permanent emergency, the federal government has ordered wireless carriers to create systems for tracking mobile phones in real time. As a result, the latest wireless communications devices often contain built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) chips that transmit the gadget's geographic coordinates to twenty-four Pentagon-maintained satellites, tracking users as they move. The resulting records can be archived, aggregated, disaggregated, and correlated with other information to create a broad overview of group behavior or detailed portraits of individual habits. Thus, a convenience, an Information Age accessory, becomes an electronic tag.

But ... who cares?

Why worry that Sprint has buried deep in its guts the coordinates of your exact location? For most people the new surveillance has no immediate material impact. So let's cut to an extreme situation, a dystopic somewhere else, and consider the question again.


In the occupied territories of the West Bank cell phones have already become critical components in the war between Israelis and Palestinians. During the first year of the Al Aqsa Intifada, the Israeli Defense Forces assassinated at least six Palestinian militants with rockets or helicopter gunships by first locating the target's cell phone and then directing fire at the coordinates of the phone. In those days most Palestinian mobile phones were jacked into Israel's politically suspect Cellcom network, headed by a former Shin Bet commander, Yakov Perry. After the link between phones and fire from the sky became clear, Palestinians started boycotting the Israeli cellular system and set up Jawwal, a Palestinian/Swedish telecom joint venture.

From this perspective, routine surveillance takes on a new meaning. With a little imagination one can see that no matter how mundane, surveillance is also always tied up with questions of power and political struggle. And not only in the very direct fashion sketched above, but so too at the level of what Raymond Williams called the "structure of feeling"

Routine digital surveillance is now almost ubiquitous and includes the records produced by credit cards, bankcards, Internet accounts, gym memberships, library cards, health insurance records, and workplace identification badges. All these create electronic files and therefore automatically and inadvertently log our movements, schedules, habits, and political beliefs. In most respects dull, the contents of such electronic dossiers become rich veins of informational ore to be excavated from any number of angles by marketers, insurance firms, or police officials. One recent FBI investigation "seized enough computer data to nearly fill the Library of Congress twice."

Even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the routine surveillance of everyday activity was expanding rapidly. But that assault, so galvanizing and palpable for a previously impervious population, has been hijacked by the worst elements of the political class, who seek to steer fear and anger toward the destruction of traditional American liberties, including what Justice Louis Brandeis called "the right to be let alone."

In many ways, 9/11 was only fuel to a fire already raging out of control. The state's drive to tag, monitor, and criminalize, and the media's compulsion to summon fear at every turn, are matched or surpassed only by the aggressive proliferation of commercially based identification, registration, and tracking. This privatized regime of observation and discipline is crystallized in the inexorable slide toward a cashless cyber-society in which every transaction is recorded and correlated to a subject's location in time and space. In Europe, microchip-integrated "smart cards"-the next logical step toward electronic money-are fast replacing all other types of credit and debt cards. Unlike most ATM or credit cards used in the US, smart cards not only deposit information but also record and store data-that is, they build and hold their own records. In the UK, the Boots Pharmacy "Advantage Card" has more than 10 million users. The Netherlands, Belgium, and France are awash in smart cards, and 70 million Germans carry them for health insurance identification purposes. And if we are to credit Moore's Law, which holds that computer processing capacity doubles every eighteenth months, the power of smart cards could grow exponentially.

What does this mean? According to one journalist: "Experts predict that, over the next decade, consumers will carry two or three smart cards: a work card with access to the company's canteen, computer network and car park; a leisure card with gym club membership and lunch money; a banking card with details about your mortgage payments and social security status.... The small plastic card in your wallet will probably know a lot more about you and your particular habits than you'd tell your best friend, from the last purchase you made to what you got in your final exams." Add to this the next generation of wireless telecommunications gear-souped-up cell phones, web-enabled Palm Pilots, onboard navigation and GPS gear for automobiles. Then imagine their interface with the countless rules, dictums, and prohibitions of overbearing state and corporate governance and one begins to see the contours of something rather unpleasant, a world that is nominally free but actually subject to a soft tyranny of omniscient and interlocking regimes of control: work rules overlapping with the criminal law; overlapping with official moralism; overlapping with the concerns of the security-conscious home; overlapping with notions of "correct" political policies; and then all of this overlapping with problematic assumptions about who is dangerous and who deserves privilege.

The new surveillance-which professor David Lyon calls "dataveillance"-often ignores the physical body and instead tracks one's informational doppelganger, but this does not mean that more traditional forms of surveillance are in decline. Quite the opposite: visual and biological monitoring complement high-tech computerized observation. For example, Citgo Petroleum Corp. now drug-tests all job applicants at its 14,500 Citgo-brand gas stations, convenience stores, and Quick Lube outlets with a state-of-the-art, instantaneous saliva-based drug test. Similar tests are becoming common elsewhere.

In New Orleans, at Frederick A. Douglass Public High School-named for America's most famous runaway slave, who forged false identities, lied to authorities, brawled with his enemies, and became one of the nation's most ardent and eloquent champions of liberty-students are encouraged to "volunteer" for hair-strand drug tests. Although there have been only a handful of dirty results so far, these chemical inspections, funded by an anonymous donor are wildly popular with the local press. Similar tests are standard practice at private Catholic schools throughout New Orleans. Educators in one part of northern New Jersey have taken this logic a step further by subjecting all athletes to random, mandatory tests for drugs, alcohol, and nicotine. Kids with dirty samples are dropped from the teams.

Various types of "biometric" surveillance that identify individuals by measuring the body are also becoming less expensive and more prevalent. Banks in all fifty states now require thumbprints from customers (not too surprising, considering that some banks have been requiring them since the early 1920s). The industry's biggest trade group, the American Bankers Association, defends the practice for obvious reasons: fingerprinting reduces fraud by an average of 60 percent. The Bank United of Texas skips the prints, having gone one better by installing Sensar Incorporated "iris scanners" at its ATMs. Staff and some frequent flyers at New York's Kennedy Airport also submit to iris scans, while Chicago's Department of Aviation makes truck drivers entering O'Hare swipe an ID card and pass their thumbs over a scanner. Public housing projects in Chicago, Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, and St. Paul also use "biometric" hand scanners to control the entrance of residents and guests. Some corporations are equipping themselves with desktop computers containing fingerprint scanners to control network access. Even kids in three Pennsylvania school districts are using digital fingerprint identification in "cash-free" lunchroom transactions: no more schoolyard shakedowns, no more chocolate milk binging.

Visual surveillance-the quintessential example being closed-circuit television (CCTV)-is also on the rise. In Manhattan, some 2,400 surveillance cameras keep watch over streets, parks, and doorways. That number is growing all the time as police do their best "to keep up with the demand." In Minneapolis-St. Paul 80 percent of the highways are under constant watch by more than 250 pole-mounted cameras, as are all the key entry and exit points of most major American cities from San Francisco to New York. Typically, a major airport now deploys up to a thousand hidden and visible closed-circuit television cameras.

All this is child's play compared to the total hegemony of CCTV in the UK, where one million cameras nationwide watch train stations, the foyers of buildings, shops, highways, and the public spaces of every major town center. And CCTV everywhere is set to converge with digitalized biometrics. The technology debuted when Tampa hosted the 2001 Super Bowl. From a crowd of approximately 100,000 sports fans the police computer had nineteen "hits" for people wanted on minor warrants. No arrests were made, in part because the freely loaned equipment and software were seemingly deployed to generate press hype for the system's manufacturer. But some European cities, along with various US government office buildings and more than a hundred casinos, use similar biometric programs for scanning their surveillance footage.

Perhaps the wackiest examples of this paranoid techno-fetishism are the 2.5 million American pets that have been implanted with microchip identification tags. If a lost pet is found, its ID info can be read with a simple handheld scanner that your local pound may or may not have. The same technology-in the form of a microchip bracelet-is already being used to tend Alzheimer's patients and small children. And, yes, a family in Florida recently had themselves implanted with ID chips containing medical and biographical information. They also bought stock in the chip-making firm just before announcing their stunt to an eager, fear-crazed national press corps. The paranoid imagination of yesterday-animals and humans with chips in them-is already passé, or at least kitsch.

Meanwhile, 75,000 Americans live under house arrest, their ankles shackled with high-tech electronic manacles tethering them to distant police computers. The FBI predicts that its wiretapping activities will increase by 300 percent between 2000 and 2010. And the National Security Agency's ECHELON program monitors most international phone calls emanating from the United States, searching them automatically for key words like "semtex" and "president."

The list could go on and on, spiraling up into the thin altitudes of political psychosis without ever leaving the realm of fact. But what are we to make of all this? And why should we care?

The point is not that any one of these examples taken in isolation is so awful, but rather that they all exist in relation to each other and should be considered as such. Each new type of surveillance forms part of an emerging, society-wide system. In other words, everyday surveillance is troubling in the same way as advertising: it is not that this or that ad is so oppressive, but a whole landscape and culture of commercialism most certainly is.


The tides of popular culture bring signs that Americans have embraced their loss of privacy with patriotic vigor and pop-culture nonchalance. Opinion polls show approval ratings of 60 to 80 percent for expanding CCTV in public spaces, while webcam exhibitionism and mass online voyeurism are hugely popular. In New York alone, thousands of vigilant parents have installed "nanny cams" bought from ParentWatch to keep remote tabs on their little darlings. Simultaneously, we have new forms of surveillance-based television: the show Big Brother casts a group of regular non-actors living together in a house that is completely exposed by cameras; their challenge is to create a life worth watching while on occasion hiding from the audience. These surveillance-as-challenge, "reality"-based shows anesthetize us to the new superintendence and in so doing treat it as another natural element, like heat or cold, with which we must live and against which we test our wits. This reification of a political technology is just one barometer of our increasing habituation to the age of surveillance.

Against the cameras, IDs, and swipe cards arises the cry of privacy. But too often this is cast as ipso facto valuable. We are rarely told why we should care about privacy: its importance is simply asserted.


Excerpted from THE SOFT CAGE by CHRISTIAN PARENTI Copyright © 2003 by Christian Parenti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Life in the Glass Box 1
Ch. 2 Antebellum ID: Genealogies of Identification and Registration 13
Ch. 3 The Accumulation of Bodies, Part I: Identification and Photography 33
Ch. 4 The Accumulation of Bodies, Part II: Early Biometrics 43
Ch. 5 Cruel Gam Saan: Surveillance and Chinese Exclusion 61
Ch. 6 Of Ones and Zeros: Digital Surveillance Emerges 77
Ch. 7 Surveillance and the Sinews of Commerce 91
Ch. 8 Camera Land: Security Aesthetics and Public Space 109
Ch. 9 The Digital Leash: Mobility and Freedom 121
Ch. 10 The New Taylorism: Surveillance, Work, and Discipline 131
Ch. 11 The Benevolent Gaze: Dossiers and the Helping Professions 151
Ch. 12 The Eye of Justice 169
Ch. 13 Voyeurism and Security Culture 183
Ch. 14 Fear As Institution: 9/11 and Surveillance Triumphant 199
Notes 213
Index 257
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2003

    important and relevant

    Mr. Parenti has provided the reader with a very well researched and historically sound examination of what surveillance is and how it effects our lives. More then a cautionary study of our diminishing liberties under increasing surveillance, he has demonstarted with this book that knowledge and understanding of this condition is the first step in deterring the deterioration of our freedoms. Mr. Parenti has fired a well placed warning shot.

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