Police State 101 - You Are Being Watched
New World Order 103 - Future of America
Big Brother is watching you 24/7
Closed-circuit TV cameras, smart cards, GPS chips in cell phones, and every one of your electronic transaction recorded and archived for data mining by the authorities and corporations - this is the lot of American citizens in the 21st century.
It is hard to move unnoticed in the United States, especially after September 11, an event which is exploited by "the worst elements of the political class, who seek to steer fear and anger toward the destruction of traditional American liberties."
As Americans "have embraced their loss of privacy with patriotic vigor and pop-culture nonchalance," it is possible that many people simply don't realize the extent of the invasion.
Television shows such as Big Brother (a Dutch invention) attempt to impose narrative on everyday actions monitored by constant surveillance, and people "treat [this surveillance] as another natural element, like heat or cold, with which we must live and against which we test our wits."
This is a chilling view of society, one that makes 1984 look like a mere rehearsal.
Journalist Christian Parenti sets out to track and chronicle surveillance in the United States, beginning in the 18th century and progressing to the present, and shows that privacy is fast slipping from our grasp.
Parenti sees modern surveillance as originating in the times of slavery, as a means of identifying and denying true identity to blacks as a class. Presenting some of the means used to search for runaway slaves, Parenti suggests that these attempts to describe truants were a form of forced identification.
But this is truly stretching the issue - a physical description of a person, a sketchy one at that, in no way violates privacy. However, the use of tin identity tags and badges in the late 18th century was indeed the first step toward establishing identity cards, which did mark their holders as slaves.
The next step in what might be called passive surveillance was photography. Identifying miscreants on paper was difficult; keeping rogue's galleries of them in photographic form made it much easier to spot them again.
Bertillonage, an early form of biometrics, based on body measurement, and later fingerprinting, helped police identify criminals, just as DNA testing is now used to do the same.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the "authorities" kept striving to develop foolproof systems of identification, all of which were designed to identify repeat offenders, or people whose identities had been recorded because of their race or political ideas.
But surveillance reached a new level of pervasiveness with the advent of digital technology. The first example of electronic surveillance occurred when IBM worked for the German National Socialist government organizing and analyzing its census, a project which was "as integral to Hitler's Final Solution as was Zyclon-B."
The numbers tattooed on prisoners' forearms - "death camp barcodes" - were linked to their computerized records. There may be a giant leap from these tattoos to Social Security numbers used for identification purposes, but one of the risks presented in this book is that data existing for specific purposes today may tomorrow be used for other reasons.
From Social Security numbers to credit cards, from bar codes to GSM chips; as times marches on, the tiny details all add up to a disturbing picture: in developed countries, it is very difficult to live without leaving traces of your actions on a daily level.
From your ATM, which knows where you were when you withdrew cash, to your cell phone, which records your location as you speak, the "soft cage" of surveillance surrounds you constantly.
Cameras film you day and night, your passage through toll booths is recorded if you use a system designed to save you time, and your employer can monitor your work through your computer.
It's odd that a technology espoused as liberating and boundary-free - the Internet - is one of the prime vectors of controlling dissent and monitoring the actions of citizens. Its ubiquity makes data transfer cheap and easy, and allows the authorities to combine databases and provide trans-national access to police forces all across the country.
In spite of all this, Parenti avoids being overly hysterical, and presents these technologies with a cool objectivity that surprises at times. But make no mistake; his presentation of these technologies is designed to inform you of the eye that watches you in everything you do.
Whether people will eventually react to this loss of freedom is unclear. As it stands, the majority of people, when polled, are generally in favor of such devices as closed-circuit cameras, since they make for safer neighborhoods. In France, where I live, the police have recently introduced automatic radar cameras to catch speeders on highways.
There is little complaint about this - and in my opinion rightly so - because this is helping to reduce the highest rate of road deaths in Europe. But when these cameras are used to track people doing other things, or the data is allowed - on purpose or accidentally - to get into the hands of others, will the public be in favor of it?
Orwell's 1984 was merely a rehearsal for today's surveillance technologies, and this book shows you why. It offers few suggestions on how to counter these technologies, other than a couple of paragraphs at the end of the book. While it's relatively easy to inventory the "thousand things that make up the soft cage", it's a much more difficult thing to revolt against them. At least this book will help foster awareness of the ways in which privacy is becoming a thing of the past.
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, logging your movements, schedules, habits and political beliefs for government agencies and businesses to access.
As cutting-edge historian and journalist Christian Parenti points out in this urgent and timely book, these everyday intrusions on privacy, while harmless in themselves, are part of a relentless expansion of routine surveillance in American life over the last two centuries.
Vivid and chilling, The Soft Cage explores the hidden history of surveillance from controlling slaves in the old South to implementing early criminal justice, tracking immigrants, and even establishing modern social work.
It also explores the role computers play in creating a whole new world of seemingly benign technologies--such as credit cards, website "cookies," electronic toll collection, "data mining." and iris scanners at airports.
With fears of personal and national security at an all-time high, this ever-growing infrastructure of high-tech voyeurism is shifting the balance of power between individuals and the state in groundbreaking--and very dangerous--ways.
From closed-circuit television cameras to the Department of Homeland Security, 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.
The Soft Cage is the first book to detail the continuum of surveillance in the making of the United States - from the slave pass to the Social Security number all the way to the many forms of computerized monitoring now shaping the post-9/11 world. The Soft Cage explores not just the history but also the politics of everyday surveillance, and explains to readers why the question of who is watching and listening is of utmost importance today.
Parenti details how seemingly benign technologies - E-ZPass, GPS systems in rental cars, and iris scans at airports - present opportunities for a reconfiguration of the balance of power between the individual and the state. Under the aegis of security and convenience, Parenti argues, corporations and the U.S. government, often working together, have, without any oversight, substantially eroded civil liberties - including the right to privacy - that Americans have long taken for granted.
As soon as possible, reread *George Orwell's "1984." Then break your cellphone into small pieces, put the pieces in a paper bag, and burn it.
Some of us might take such actions after reading Christian Parenti's thought-provoking book, "The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America - From Slave Passes to the War on Terror."
Parenti, a historian and author of the well- received, " Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis" (1999), has hit another sociopolitical nerve with this analysis of America's culture of surveillance.
"Consider this," Parenti writes ominously at the beginning. "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."
A harmless little detail, right? Not exactly. During the first year of the second intifada, the government of Israel assassinated six Palestinian militants "by first locating the target's cell phone and then directing fire at the coordinates of the phone," Parenti writes.
Cellphones are just one example of how all of us are easily traced everyday through the convenience of modern technology. Credit cards, Internet accounts, gym memberships, library cards, health-insurance records, and workplace identification badges are some of the other routine technological conveniences that daily record our every move.
By closely examining chattel slavery in America, Parenti illustrates how this pattern began centuries ago. Using such measures as patrols and passes, America desperately tried to keep track of its many African slaves.
The creation of full-time police departments, starting in New York City in 1845, marked a further broadening of America's surveillance system. These police departments used finger-printing and photography to track criminals and, Parenti says, in the process laid the groundwork for our current system of mass observation.
The individual chapters of "The Soft Cage" focus on particular topics that could be books themselves. One of the best, "The Camera Land: Security Aesthetics and Public Space," discusses the proliferation of cameras that seem to watch all public spaces. Parenti notes that such an arrangement has a "corrosive effect upon democracy."
He also analyzes surveillance at work in the social-welfare system, and through the economy in which the proliferation of "digital cash" (debit and credit cards) has "caused an unplanned, unexamined extension of state power and social discipline."
"The Soft Cage" concludes with a discussion of Sept. 11 and the current battle in America over privacy, civil liberties, and security. "Sept. 11 did not create a technical or legal rupture in the developing infrastructure of everyday superintendence," Parenti stresses. "It did, however radically accelerate momentum towards the soft cage of a surveillance society."
Though Parenti makes it clear that "even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the routine surveillance of everyday activity was expanding rapidly," he claims the horror of that day has been "seized, even hijacked, by the worse elements of the political class who seek to steer fear and anger towards the destruction of traditional American liberties."
"The Soft Cage" concludes optimistically with musings on the future of resistance in a surveillance society. Parenti defines a concept he calls "the right to illegality." In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, he asks, "Are the rules and laws of this society all rational, benevolent and just? If they are not, and if many of them serve to reproduce racism, stupidity, exploitation, environmental devastation, and general brutality, then should we not resist them?"