The history of government surveillance in the U.S.: From the dragnet to Prism

In the 1930s, the dragnet came to refer to the use of radio as the key technology to combat criminal mobility.
This image from 1935 is of a radio program being recorded at KTAR (AM), Phoenix, Arizona. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Associate professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University

Revelation of the U.S.’s massive data gathering operation known as Prism has invoked a broad array of public reactions and debates. On the one hand, people seemed shocked to learn that the NSA has been spying on Americans’ phone calls, texts, and Internet activities, while on the other, there were those who pointed out that government surveillance has not exactly been a secret. And, while the enormous scope and breadth of Prism left a great number of Americans angry, an equal if not greater number seemed less concerned.

A number of debates center on the uniqueness of Prism in terms of its deployment of digital technologies and the ability to collect, store, and algorithmically manipulate vast swaths of data in order to draw up profiles of individuals as consumers, citizens, and now, as potential terrorists or criminal suspects. There is a lingering sense that this is somehow a new phenomenon linked both to the exigencies of a diffuse “war” and the destabilizing potentials found in emerging technologies of communication. But a broader lens demonstrates that this recent incident has deeper historical roots.

The roots of the global War on Terror are found in the domestic War on Crime, that public relations master stroke of one of the New Deal’s new centralized agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Spearheaded by the dynamic and controversial J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI worked to build, organize, file, and make accessible vast stores of information about not only criminals, but citizens more generally. The formation of the FBI was deemed necessary, in part, to deal with a key technology transforming twentieth century American life: the automobile. But while the FBI gets a great deal of credit and scholarly attention, it was at the level of the state, county, and city/municipality, that a range of law enforcement reformers, officials, and agencies made the crucial link between the other key technology transforming interwar life: the radio.

Together the radio and automobile formed a new horizon of surveillance imagined through the metaphor of the dragnet. Once used to describe the routine roundup of vagrants and other potential criminal types in poor neighborhoods in the 1930s, the dragnet came to refer to the use of radio as the key technology to combat criminal mobility. The growing use of the automobile was made possible by the tremendous expansion of usable roads, especially paved roads, that made quick travel across municipal, county, and state lines a vexing problem for the highly decentralized U.S. law enforcement agencies. Radio offered a solution. Its technological ability to collapse space and time led police forces to explore its capacity as both a one-to-many and one-to-one technology in order to coordinate the deployment of automobile patrols over vast swaths of territory. Linked with tools like the telephone and teletype, police forces worked to construct themselves as constantly available, omnipresent forces capable of being everywhere.

But technocratic solutions to perceived social problems do not happen in policy vacuums. While the FBI policy machine spun out an image of the immaculate, upright G-Man, beholden to the law first and all else second, municipal and state uses of radio likewise served as sources of public good will building. From articles in trade to general interest magazines, appearances in films, and finally to being represented on the radio itself, police radio was heralded as the key symbol of police modernization. More than that, its interlinking with the automobile and telephone allowed reformers to image radio as the perfect tool of surveillance. Police forces and popular radio dramas urged citizens to be vigilant in their daily lives and to use those technologies that had become so central to daily life in the Depression era as tools to ensnare criminals in a dragnet made of as many nodes as their were “upstanding” citizens. At the same time, the technologically enabled dragnet was figured as much as about safety as crime fighting; a safety net for a mobile population. The coordination of these technologies in the name of surveillance and safety exactly prefigures contemporary modes of mobile media technology and use.

During the Depression era, using radio as a form of surveillance over mobility relied on a historically emerging relationship between everyday life and the technologies of communication and transportation, captured by Raymond Williams’s term “mobile privatization.” As “mass communication” was theorized as a tool of mass manipulation through methods of publicity, surveillance through radio was imagined as what Orwell would later see as “Big Brother,” a mode of invasive watching enabled by those very tools that made modern life both mobile and manageable. As we find ourselves in a newly emergent moment of digitization and big data, today’s “masses” are now “niches,” or more radically, content providers in and of themselves, who now live in a world of privatized mobilization. No longer is the injunction to watch others (though that is certainly true), but as any number of media scholars have noted, today’s imperative is constant self-disclosure in the name of identity building. That the state and its citizens would see this as a potential tool to arrest forms of global mobility and “terror” is not a historical inevitability, but it is part and parcel of a broader historical trajectory linking the vital technologies of everyday life to state surveillance.


Kathleen Battles is associate professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University. She is author of Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing

“Kathleen Battles fills a gaping hole in the literature on early radio.”
—Kathy M. Newman, author of
Radio Active

“A superb cultural study not only of 1930s radio programming within a socio-historical context, but of crime culture and the shifting image of law enforcement in the 20th century.”
—Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

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