Surveillance Entrepreneurs and the Semiotics of Anonymity in the Early 20th Century United States

Fiona Greenland, University of Virginia

Mass surveillance is the systematic observation, capture, and transfer of human activity into data, and reflects a convergence of interests by the security state and the tech industry. That is the argument developed by scholars of surveillance in recent years (Igo 2018; Lauer 2017; Lyon 2018). Accepting the basic premise of this origin story, sociologists have attended to questions of why and how surveillance technologies have been adopted by a range of social actors, including law enforcement, employers, public housing authorities, and educational institutions, and with what impact on people’s lives (Brayne 2017). We know less about citizens’ participation in mass surveillance, and how ordinary people have affirmed, expanded, and shaped it. This paper addresses that gap with a comparative and historical analysis of the primitive accumulation of surveillance capital in the early 20th century United States.

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 Presented in Session 186. Crime policy and mass incarceration