Non-Fiction Reviews

We Know All About You
The story of surveillance in Britain and America

(2017) Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Oxford University Press, £18.99 / US$29.95, hrdbk, ix + 290pp, ISBN 978-0-198-74966-0


Dystopian science fiction is often scary enough but a non-fiction work depicting the World we already live in as a borderline dystopian police state is always truly terrifying. This is a book with a clear, but non-sensationalized message that we are not always being paranoid as they sometimes really are out to get us.

Many of the more modern innovations in people-watching by the powers that be may come as no surprise to us. The rise of CCTV technology gets detailed coverage, and Edward J. Snowden’s whistle-blowing and the subsequent legal battle surrounding him get a full chapter. Post 9/11 has seen a dramatic shift from monitoring the activities of suspected left wing Socialist – Communist radicals to surveillance of religious groups, refugees, etc.

George Orwell predictably gets a lot of mention in the book given that his novel 1984 is centred on a Dystopian Totalitarian surveillance state. Less expected is the revelation that Orwell freely co-operated with the British authorities in revealing the names of left-wing activists as Britain copied the US in a crackdown on suspected Communist agitators. Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War had left him disillusion with the political left late in his life.

The author’s approach is mostly chronological with frequent leaps back and forth across the Atlantic as the author switches to and fro between US and UK surveillance activity, showing the extent to which British politicians copy American approaches, especially under Tony Blair.

The spectacular downfall of Britain’s tabloid newspaper The News of the World was down to their use of sophisticated phone tapping to help secure their stories.

Where the book really comes into its own is in showing the early history of surveillance and that we often have more to fear when the apparatus for watching over our every move is handled in the private sector rather than directly by the State. Many companies have used, and in some cases still use, coded blacklisting methods to screen out suspected radicals from potential hiring.

Systematic surveillance largely grew with merchant bank loaning companies. Bankers wanted to be sure they were giving credit to people able to pay them back. Mercantile creditors R. G. Dun published a directory of its clients and other business figure in 1859, and began to keep close tabs on many of the 800,000 companies and businessmen listed. At this time typewriter carbon copying meant quick printing of documents and the use of small cameras developed by Kodak made it easy to gain photographic evidence on anyone under suspicion or subversive surveillance too.

Dun was soon under fire as people given low credit ratings traced their inability to secure investments was down to being blacklisted due to their records. Anti-Surveillance and calls for freedom from being watched, filed and having information shared or sold to third parties grew almost as quickly as surveillance itself. The book charts the struggle between the two opposing sides from the 1860’s to the 2000s.

We think of the Pinkerton detective agency of the 19th century doggedly pursuing criminals, but their main function was the infiltration and breaking of trade unions. They would often join radical groups, loudly support and even lead the cause, help in attacks and physical assaults on opponents, and practice entrapment. This reached its peak in the famous case of The Molly Maguires. James McParland, a Pinkerton agent, went undercover in the Pennsylvanian coalfields worked by the Maguires. Though he learned that the gang planned to assassinate mine superintendent, John P. Jones, McParland made no effort to warn him and the killing took place, enabling McParland’s testimony to help send twenty Maguire ring-leaders to the gallows.

We tend to think of McCarthyist anti-Communist activity as exclusively American, but Jeffreys-Jones shows that MI5 was keeping careful tabs on left wing writers such as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Ewan McColl in this period in tandem with our Trans-Atlantic cousins.

The Watergate scandal of 1974 helped to expose the extent of US surveillance of its own citizens, with calls for greater transparency. The CIA confirmed that it had kept a close eye on as many as 10,000 dissidents, mostly anti-Vietnam protesters. The worry had been that the protesters might be gaining support and funding from unfriendly international organizations but no actual cases of this were ever found.

Snowden, like many whistle-blowers has faced intense reprisal and smear campaigns suggesting he suffers mental instability or that he is on Russian payrolls. Such is the risk faced by those who dare to speak out.

The author concludes with great sobriety, that while setting out to use surveillance with the best intention, the powers that be will inevitably use it more and more in both public and private sectors, crossing the moral divide without even realizing they are doing so.

The book shows that while President Obama was drawing on greater transparency with regard to surveillance policy, Britain has become the most CCTV intensive state on Earth. Sadly, the book was released before it could begin to assess the importance of surveillance under the Trump administration but even with this cut-off it is a fascinating, if not a troubling, read.

Arthur Chappell


[Up: Non-Fiction Index | Top: Concatenation]

[Updated: 17.9.20 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]