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Book reviews

16 September 19

Review of We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America (Jeffreys-Jones)

by Fiona Kennedy

We Know All About You

The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

PUBLISHER: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
ISBN: 978-0198749660
PRICE: £18.99

So let me ask you this. You read the word, surveillance. Where did your brain first go? The plethora of CCTV cameras on our streets, perhaps, or GCHQ outside Cheltenham? Or to a spy novel you recently read, or even to the ultimate see-all one, Big Brother? Nixon, Watergate, the news that the USA had eavesdropped Angela Merkel’s phone calls?

On the other hand, perhaps your memory took you back a little closer in time. Phone hacking, the events that shut down the News of the World, shameful activities where names of journalists like Andy Coulson were mixed with personal tragedies like that of Millie Dowler. Or even closer to home. How is it that when the Sainsbury’s till issues discount vouchers seemingly at random, they always feature items which I have bought in the past, but not too recently?

Professor Jeffreys-Jones is a veteran in this field. A Professor Emeritus of American History at Edinburgh University, he has written two American intelligence surveys plus studies of the FBI and CIA. Understandably, therefore, this fascinating book is particularly strong on the transatlantic section. He reminds us that while modern electronics have changed the means out of all recognition, surveillance itself is nothing new. In 1790, George Washington established a contingency fund for spies, with the privilege of not having to account for how he spent it. By 1793, that fund had grown to 12% of his whole budget. Abraham Lincoln had spies reporting on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

I suspect that many of us will tend to consider the topic in the context of Big Government. Lawyers since the time of John Stuart Mill (and probably before) have wrestled with the complexities of civil liberties. The balance between a right to privacy (which has exercised the Scottish courts in the last few months) and the legitimate interests of the state in trying to protect its citizens is a fine one. Yet, as Jeffreys-Jones points out, big business has been every bit as active. I have mentioned the way supermarkets build up a picture of our shopping habits – but you have no obligation to have or use a loyalty card. If you were wanting to do business with them, however, behind the scenes they would have other ways of finding out more about you. Credit checks have been with us for a long time. The companies which eventually joined forces to become Dun & Bradstreet were formed in the middle of the 19th century.

Some may think that employer versus employee surveillance is the most sinister. There is no doubt that Andrew Carnegie (and many other employers of his time) used surveillance, and a whole lot more, in their struggles against the rise of trade unions. I use the phrase “of his time”, but there is no denying that in the past few decades blacklists circulated, for a price, among construction and oil companies, to allow them to avoid employing known troublemakers. Despite denials, many believe that they still exist today. And what about time and motion studies or the tachometer, the so called “spy in the cab”? Are these legitimate means of improving efficiency and working practices, and the prevention of accidents, or are they unwarranted personal intrusions?

Whatever your views, you can only be assisted in your arguments by having the facts. For that, and many other reasons, I commend this book to you.

Tom Johnston

 

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