Book Review: We Know All About You

May 25, 2017

It would be easy to think that the mass surveillance of
individuals is a fairly modern phenomenon, that has only recently caught the
public eye with contemporary technological advancements. Even years after the
Snowden revelations, we continue to be exposed to fresh revelations detailing
the increasing capabilities of the state, private corporations, and
intelligence agencies in keeping their brotherly eye on us.
  A recent example comes to mind, “Weeping
Angel”. Far from being just a nod to a predatory threat to a certain
intergalactic Doctor, it was revealed as the codename of malware that was
capable of eavesdropping on consumers through their smart TVs. A chilling
example of Orwell’s prophecy many fear is coming truer by the day.

In ‘We Know All About
’, historian and intelligence expert Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones turns the
narrative of mass surveillance on its head, and brings to life the
often-overlooked origins of surveillance in Britain and America. Far from the
genesis of this tale being secret bunkers, remote labs and double crossing
agents, Jeffreys-Jones manages to make a convincing and surprising case for the
role and influence of private actions in the growth of surveillance of the
individual and calls for greater scrutiny. 

The account of the central characters and events that have
shaped our understanding of the practice of mass surveillance is rich in
detail, and Jeffreys-Jones’ descriptions are as precise as they are
thought-provoking. The growth and popularity of overzealous private eye
agencies, such as Pinkerton’s, and the credit rating agencies of the early 19th
century demonstrate the devastating effects of organisations and private
entities obsessively collecting intel under the guise of keeping an eye on a
‘troublesome’ workforce. 

Expanding on this narrative, Jeffreys-Jones demonstrates how
such practices were used to infiltrate industrial unions, in order to collect
information on persons of interest who were subsequently placed on blacklists.
Such blacklists often had life-changing and harrowing consequences – especially
where the information on which they were based was usually inaccurate. We later
see how the effects of labour espionage on both sides of the Atlantic
influenced the practices of public surveillance, some of which are still in use

Disturbingly, we see that the practice of private
surveillance was often reliant on citizens playing the role of informant on
their fellow man and nowhere is this uncomfortable truth clearer than in the
height of the Red Scare. Jeffreys-Jones goes to great lengths to drive one
prevailing point home: the inappropriateness of private surveillance
consequently informing subsequent public policy following the Cold War (and
ultimately the actions of several successive presidents).

In particular, Jeffreys-Jones is somewhat successful in
making a case for the fact that private surveillance has historically caused
greater harm to individuals, and that it is this, rather than the state spying
on us, that represents the real danger of the adverse effects on individuals
being surveilled in this day and age. He makes a convincing case, illustrating
that the growing dangers of private surveillance are real and tend to be
overlooked or subordinated to fears of state surveillance. Rather than the
state’s Big Brother, really we should be worried about the Little Brothers and
Sisters of the corporations; ultimately, the fears of digital governmental
surveillance are overblown.

The author’s tale culminates in an evaluation of the post-Snowden
era and of particular interest are the last four chapters where he attempts to
evaluate the effectiveness of legislation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, where the arguments for increased private
surveillance have returned with a vengeance as the ‘War on Terror’ continues to
shape foreign and domestic policy.

A question comes to mind, how should policymakers
effectively balance the interests of the growing issue of surveillance in the
name of fighting terrorism, when balanced with the uneasy and indiscriminate
practice of mass surveillance of all of our data.  Here, Jeffreys-Jones attempts to review not
just surveillance, but the debate about it. Controversially, he advocates a clearer
definition of mass surveillance and warns against a focus on the actions of
individuals as justification for surveillance. Instead, the focus should be on
the policy we implement in preventing terrorism. However, it is here that he
falls short and perhaps the tale would have benefitted from an in-depth
analysis that offered alternatives, rather than simply condemning the efforts
thus far.

We Know
challenges us to re-assess our notions and attitudes towards mass surveillance.
Ultimately, Jeffreys-Jones emphasizes that problems arising from private sector
surveillance have been particularly neglected. As demonstrated through the
hysteria caused by McCarthyism, when surveillance is undertaken by fellow
private citizens we are horrified so why are we then not as horrified when we
willingly volunteer our data to the new private eye – we have become our own

Chimbga is a UCL Law graduate, and currently works for FundApps analysing
financial regulation and translating it into algorithms.