Evenhanded account of society’s persistent embrace of surveillance for security and control.
Jeffreys-Jones (Emeritus, American History/Univ. of Edinburgh; The American Left, 2013, etc.) views this controversial topic with a historian’s dispassionate curiosity, noting that governmental surveillance can be justified due to terrorism, while for-profit spying often goes unquestioned. “The growing dangers of private surveillance are real,” he writes, “and tend to be overlooked or subordinated to fears of state surveillance.” The author uses historical narrative to demonstrate this insidious dynamic. In both the United States and Britain, 19th-century conflict between labor movements and robber-baron industrialists birthed early attempts at comprehensive surveillance, epitomized by the growth of detective services like the Pinkertons, who infiltrated radical miners’ groups, leading to “a low point in the reputation of the private eye.” In Britain, World War I spy services spawned a professionalized blacklisting industry, providing leverage over a restive working class: “Union troublemakers were identified through their activities, by means of scrutinizing the union and local press, and with the assistance of a league of informers.” Jeffreys-Jones claims that the blacklisting of one element of a broader attack on labor is an “unofficial collaboration with the government.” The supposedly populist Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a nascent security state in collaboration with J. Edgar Hoover before Pearl Harbor, spurred by the 1938 uncovering of a Nazi spy ring. The author also examines the creeping excess in America of the McCarthy and COINTELPRO periods as well as their less-known equivalents in Britain; in both nations, citizens “were willing to accept transgressions against privacy and civil liberties.” While the 1970s saw a pivot toward protecting individual rights—and a congressional investigation of CIA excess—post–9/11 technologies and fears have surely eroded that progress. Jeffreys-Jones closes with an exploration of Edward Snowden’s “personal set of principles,” tying together these complex themes with a style that is lucid and approachable and only occasionally dry.
Academic history light on bombast, with clear relevance to our current unsettled moment.