The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror

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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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About 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.

From 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.
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