A selection of our books on surveillance and censorship
Banned Books Week, observed every year since 1982, offers a moment for readers to consider the history and deep harm of censorship while simultaneously celebrating free and open access to information and the freedom to read. While book censorship may seem to some like a relic of the past or a plot point in a dystopian novel, books are still regularly targeted for a variety of reasons, among them religious and political viewpoints, LGBTQIA+ content, and profanity.
The weeklong event, spearheaded by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (IOF), spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools in particular. Perennial entries on IOF’s most often challenged list include works by Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabakov, John Steinbeck, and Maya Angelou. As far as we know, none of our books have made the list, but then again a whopping 82–97 percent of challenges, the IOF has found, remain unreported.
This year, we’re stepping back a bit and highlighting a few of our favorite books on the topics of censorship and surveillance more broadly — from a graphic narrative reporting on censorship of political cartoons around the world, to a collection of dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s notorious online writings, culled from his personal blog, which Chinese authorities shut down in 2009. Read on to learn more about these and other books below.
Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files edited by JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton and Michael Morisy
Writers are dangerous. They have ideas. The proclivity of writers for ideas drove the FBI to investigate many of them—to watch them, follow them, start files on them. Writers Under Surveillance gathers some of these files, giving readers a surveillance-state perspective on writers including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson.
The files on these authors, obtained with Freedom of Information Act requests, are surprisingly wide ranging; the investigations were as broad and varied as the authors’ own works. James Baldwin, for example, was so openly antagonistic to the state’s security apparatus that investigators followed his every move. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, was likely unaware that the Bureau had any interest in his work. Ernest Hemingway, true to form, drunkenly called the FBI Nazis and sissies.
“In Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, we get a look at some of the facts and hearsay that was gathered on 16 prominent authors. It’s a fascinating and at times hilarious book. You could argue that it’s an important one, too.” —Daily Beast
Activists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files edited by JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton and Michael Morisy
The FBI has always kept tabs on political activists. During the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, it was a Bureau-wide obsession. Did you see that guy who didn’t quite look like a journalist, taking pictures at a demonstration? He was probably FBI. Did you say something mildly subversive in a radio interview? It went in your file. Did you attend a meeting of a left-leaning organization? The attendee who didn’t contribute but took copious notes was possibly an informant. This volume of selected FBI files liberated by MuckRock documents the FBI’s pursuit of activists and dissenters ranging from Margaret Sanger to Malcolm X.
“This work by Brown, Lipton, and Morisy reminds us that the powerful institutions of the federal government are only as good as the men and women who lead them.” —New York Journal of Books
Scientists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files edited by JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton and Michael Morisy
Armed with ignorance, misinformation, and unfounded suspicions, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover cast a suspicious eye on scientists in disciplines ranging from physics to sex research. If the Bureau surveilled writers because of what they believed (as documented in Writers Under Surveillance), it surveilled scientists because of what they knew. Such scientific ideals as the free exchange of information seemed dangerous when the Soviet Union and the United States regarded each other with mutual suspicion that seemed likely to lead to mutual destruction. Scientists Under Surveillance gathers FBI files on some of the most famous scientists in America, reproducing them in their original typewritten, teletyped, hand-annotated form.
“This study of the world as the powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saw it, focusing on surveillance of scientists, is as chilling as it is pertinent in a world in which we are suffocated by intrusive monitoring from governments and private power. We ignore its lessons at our peril.” —Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus, MIT
Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship by Cherian George and Sonny Liew
Why do the powerful feel so threatened by political cartoons? Cartoons don’t tell secrets or move markets. Yet, as Cherian George and Sonny Liew show us in Red Lines, cartoonists have been harassed, trolled, sued, fired, jailed, attacked, and assassinated for their insolence. The robustness of political cartooning—one of the most elemental forms of political speech—says something about the health of democracy. In a lively graphic narrative—illustrated by Liew, himself a prize-winning cartoonist—Red Lines crisscrosses the globe to feel the pulse of a vocation under attack.
“An absorbing read […] Red Lines is an invaluable almanac for anyone who has been involved in the defence of cartoonists over the last few decades.” —Cartoonists Rights Network International
In 2006, even though he could barely type, China’s most famous artist started blogging. For more than three years, Ai Weiwei turned out a steady stream of scathing social commentary, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture, and autobiographical writings. He wrote about the Sichuan earthquake (and posted a list of the schoolchildren who died because of the government’s “tofu-dregs engineering”), reminisced about Andy Warhol and the East Village art scene, described the irony of being investigated for “fraud” by the Ministry of Public Security, made a modest proposal for tax collection. Then, on June 1, 2009, Chinese authorities shut down the blog. This book offers a collection of Ai’s notorious online writings translated into English—the most complete, public documentation of the original Chinese blog available in any language.
“This work is invaluable as a critical perspective and chronicle while also being an extraordinary contributor to…the contemporary Chinese political landscape.” —David Roberts, Building Design
Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum
With Obfuscation, Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum mean to start a revolution. They are calling us not to the barricades but to our computers, offering us ways to fight today’s pervasive digital surveillance—the collection of our data by governments, corporations, advertisers, and hackers. To the toolkit of privacy protecting techniques and projects, they propose adding obfuscation: the deliberate use of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection projects. Brunton and Nissenbaum provide tools and a rationale for evasion, noncompliance, refusal, even sabotage—especially for average users, those of us not in a position to opt out or exert control over data about ourselves. Obfuscation teaches users to push back, software developers to keep their user data safe, and policy makers to gather data without misusing it.
“At Obfuscation‘s core is a dystopian vision, offering solutions for ‘users’ who are assumed to have enough want-to and know-how to follow the authors down this road.” —Times Higher Education
Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace edited by Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan L. Zittrain
Internet filtering, censorship of Web content, and online surveillance are increasing in scale, scope, and sophistication around the world, in democratic countries as well as in authoritarian states. The new tools for Internet controls that are emerging go beyond mere denial of information. These new techniques, which aim to normalize (or even legalize) Internet control, include targeted viruses and the strategically timed deployment of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, stringent terms of usage policies, and national information shaping strategies. Access Controlled, a project from the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the SecDev Group, offers six substantial chapters that analyze Internet control in both Western and Eastern Europe and a section of shorter regional reports and country profiles drawn from material gathered by the ONI around the world through a combination of technical interrogation and field research methods.
“Valuable to anyone who is interested in information policy.” —ShinJeong Yeo, Journal for the American Society for Information Science and Technology