• Article

Documentary identification and mass surveillance in the United States

Reliance on documentary identification such as computer records, identification cards, and official papers is an essential feature of life in today's advanced industrial societies. This paper examines the history and use of six of the most common personal documents in the United States: Social Security cards, driver's licenses, credit cards, birth certificates, passports, and bank books. The increasing use and importance of such documents reflects the growth of new relationships between individuals and large, centralized organizations. These new relationships entail mass surveillance and social control, and result in increasing demands by organizations for personal data. We look at the strengths and weaknesses of these surveillance systems and the prospects of still greater social control in the future.


Rule, J. B., McAdam, D., Stearns, L., & Uglow, D. (1983). Documentary identification and mass surveillance in the United States. Social Problems, 31(2), 222-234. DOI: 10.1525/sp.1983.31.2.03a00110