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Title: The Soft Cage - Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror
Author: Christian Parenti
Publisher: Basic Books
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-465-02467-x
Pages: 273
Price: $24.95
Rating: 90%

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.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site,