Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Soft Cage - Surveillance in America

A community-led CCTV control room from Joseph Morales presentation at ICA

I just finished reading the 2004 book, Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror. It shows how public surveillance started with a trickle and turned into a torrent. While generally well-written, he lapses into some obtuse theory and heavy-handed politics. Still, the message is worth the torment.

Parenti starts by echoing a common sentiment: "what harm is caused by the proliferation of everyday surveillance?" He ends by concluding: "There are risks in social anonymity, but the risks of an omniscient and omnipotent state and corporate power are far worse."

The story travels the fascinating, historical journey of surveillance: metal slave tags during the antebellum years, the birth of the mug shot, biometrics and face-recognition technology, DNA fingerprinting, invasive Internet cookies and so forth.

I was especially fascinated by the sections on CCTV. TV's NCIS will have us believe Big Brother can see all. Parenti's research suggests there is a reality gap the size of the Grand Canyon when it comes to the effectiveness of existing CCTV technology. Still, it proliferates. Over 30% of American high schools have CCTV. Like a growing number of other cities, Washington DC Police use cameras for surveillance of public streets.

Then there is the UK! I've reported in previous blogs about millions of CCTV in British cities, London's Ring of Steel, and the role of CCTV in the crime triangle.

Parenti claims those millions of cameras scanning for decades haven't caught a single terrorist and are still a threat to civil liberties. Findings like this make Soft Cage a worthy read.

Conceptually, Parenti draws on the unintelligible, circular theories of French historian Michael Foucault.

One painful sample: the fetishism of home security, while clearly being about actual security and target-hardening, is also a cargo cult of individual defense against social disintegration of the sort described by Katz [where] imaginary, or magical, forms of agency are acted out in the face of massive and nebulous threats.

Apparently Parenti has never been victim of a home invasion or burglary.

He also makes some fundamental errors such as misidentifying Oscar Newman as a promoter of target hardening and completely missing the entire crime prevention through environmental design movement. It would seem fiscal cost cutting at Soft Cage publisher Basic Books ran too deep in their editing and fact-checking departments.

The book could also use updating. I'm thinking of Joseph Morales and his presentation Not Quite Amish at last year's ICA CPTED conference. Joseph described how his community organization democratized public CCTV and became an effective crime prevention tool.

Overall, Soft Cage is worth the read. Surveillance has its place. We just have to make sure we choose the right place. Books like this help us choose.

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