The History of Mass Surveillance in the United States

In the process of mass surveillance, the state collects information on a subversive individual or group in order to protect itself from threat. The raw data of communications, biodata, locations, etc that the government intercepts is useless without robust systems of organization and analysis. Intelligence agencies must be able to determine what information is relevant, use data to generate profiles, and create archives that can be easily searched. Like a panopticon, the operative function of a mass surveillance network is the centralization of information. The greatest innovations in surveillance have been organizational systems and information technologies which index data across different agencies and different mediums.

The other major feature of surveillance is its purpose, namely the repression and control of an alien threat.  Intelligence collection is not a passive process, it is intertwined with espionage, or the infiltration and sabotage of enemies. The modern concept of mass surveillance was bred from British and American methods of controlling insurrections among colonized native populations. Imperial exercises which reinforced frameworks of racial hierarchy impacted the development of domestic policy. The permanent flow of military veterans into domestic law enforcement ensures the influence of military tactics and ideologies, which separate combat from civilian, safe from hostile, and friend from enemy.

Surveillance shares a history with the debunked racist science of eugenics. Whereas eugenics applies statistics to the question of racial difference, surveillance applies library science. Surveillance flattens suspicious people to an index of searchable profiles, making it easier to identify and control problem populations. Just as important as a surveillance system’s ability to cast a wide net is its ability to target individuals, groups, key words, behaviors, etc. Surveillance functions to demarcate one group from the rest of the population, labeling one to be protected, and one to be controlled. Whose homeland and whose security is being protected?


Louise Ho