Global Histories of Identification and Surveillance

Never before have our personal identities been scrutinized as they are today. In an age of increasing anxiety and concern for security—especially since 9/11—we are asked to authenticate our personal features on a daily basis, sometimes inadvertently. Providing our names and signatures is no longer sufficient proof of identification; in the last century technology has gone deeper into our bodies to validate our identities by scanning our faces, creating mathematical patterns from our iris, or capturing the almost invisible texture from our fingerprints. As a result, in just a few seconds, a device can confirm or deny if we are who we claim to be.

History suggests what’s both new and old about this state of affairs. Just the description of how identification technology operates nowadays may sound scary, or taken from a science fiction film, especially if we compare it with the primitive and less sophisticated techniques displayed in the past to record names, physical features, or any other mark visible only to the trained human eye. Originally conceived in modern times as an effective instrument of surveillance, identification is used these days to expand citizenship through the distribution of ID cards and civil registration among undocumented citizens and refugees fleeing from war and chaos. Whether we approach the subject of identification from the perspective of surveillance or civil registration, understanding the long-term interaction between identity documents and citizens helps us explore how a society classifies and governs populations according to certain categories, such as age, gender, race, and class.

The following list builds on the literature assigned in the course that I teach at Cornell. I find that a global framework helps us better comprehend the history of the production, circulation, and appropriation of these technologies and artifacts by policy makers and citizens. Readers will be surprised to learn how ancient some of these techniques are and how society continues to target potential human threats based on physical features, much as it did one or two centuries ago. Does surveillance make us more secure? Do we enjoy more freedom or do we live in a virtual panopticon controlled by technology? If so, what options do we have to regain our privacy? These books force readers to confront their beliefs and concerns about security and privacy, and make them think twice the next time they look at a camera, type their passwords, or get a new ID card.

Places to Start

Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America: From Slavery to the War on Terror (2003)

Written in an engaging style, The Soft Cage provides a comprehensive (and frightening) account of modern surveillance. Parenti traces the current surveillance system back to the Antebellum period in American history–when slaves were forced to carry passes and patrols regulated their movements– and the development of border controls to restrict the arrival of “unwelcome” immigrants. He also highlights the efforts displayed by citizens over the last decades to counter and resist the oppressive power of surveillance and those who promote it.

Chandak Sengoopta, Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting Was Born in Colonial India (2003)

This book reverses the conventional narrative that established that fingerprints were disseminated from the North Atlantic to the rest of the world. Instead, Sengoopta traces its roots back to India under the British rule in the nineteenth-century, challenging the unidirectional functioning of imperial and colonial networks. Transnational history at its finest.

Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe (2007)

Long before our sophisticated machines were able to authenticate our identities in just a fraction of a second, people from the Middle Ages displayed innovative mechanisms to determine individual identities, such as face-to-face recognition and documents. Groebner offers an intriguing pre-history of our modern identification technologies, when they relied on human contact and the recognition of visual signs and marks like tattoos, portraits, signs, or badges.

Mara Loveman, National Colors: Racial Classification and the State in Latin America (2014)

Every once in a while, governments ask us to identify ourselves according to certain categories for the census. The picture that emerges from such data reveals our varied and conflicting ideas of a nation, and how we situate ourselves in that image. Loveman studies the censuses carried out in the last two centuries in Latin America and challenges countries’ claims to be “color-blind,” “mestizo,” or “post-racial.” She focuses on how these “ethnoracial” categories varied over time and whether they served to promote progress and social justice or to reinforce the segregation of minority groups.

Digging In

Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (2001)

This foundational book on identification studies brought together scholars—mostly working on Europe—to analyze the emergence of identification as a state-oriented process developed through bureaucracy and experts since the Middle Ages. The book reflects a variety of perspectives and case studies, but what emerges, on the eve of 9/11, is a joint history of surveillance and the complex and multiple techniques displayed in the last centuries to determine the “uniqueness” of individuals through the examination of their bodies.

Colin J. Bennett and David Lyon, eds., Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective (2008)

The shadow of 9/11 has loomed large over studies since. How did we end up carrying these pieces of plastic in our pockets or purses? It turns out that identity documents have accompanied us at least for the last five centuries, whether as humble sheets or laminated cards (and it’s more likely that we will carry their digital versions in our smartphones in the not too distant future). This book of essays documents the various efforts worldwide to enforce a national identification system based on identity cards, exploring how these “devices” spread, and the technological, political, and moral challenges encountered by their promoters and users—everyday citizens.

New Moves

Shoshana Amielle Magnet, When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity (2011)

After 9/11 people and policy makers placed their faith in surveillance and biometrics as the most effective methods to prevent another terrorist attack. Unfortunately, as Magnet argues, biometrics is far from being infallible and “objective” given the complexity of human bodies and the biases behind those who design this particular technology.

Kelly Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (2011)

Faces and facial expressions have been our most distinctive and recognizable physical features as human beings. Since the nineteenth century, the impulse to identify individuals by their faces prompted us to develop automation techniques, from mug shots to more sophisticated algorithms in surveillance cameras. Gates analyzes the risks and debates involved in the engineering of this particular technology and how it is reconfiguring the nature of identification.

Voices and Lives

Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (1997)

Can you imagine walking to the front desk at the National Archives, and asking for your personal police file? That is what the British historian Timothy Garton Ash did. In this book, Garton Ash provides one of the most disturbing and original stories based on the surveillance information produced by the former East-German Stasi while he was a student in the 1970s.

Meredith Castile, Driver’s License (2015)

Castile combines her own testimony with the study of the driver’s license in the U.S. to offer an original and powerful reflection on Americans’ personal connections with this document, which also serves as a de facto national ID card. The book covers several aspects of this artifact, from the time of its manufacturing, to the circulation of fake licenses.

José Ragas is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. He is the Founder and Editor of