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Authors: Ewert, Daniel William
Advisors: Canaday, Margot
Contributors: History Department
Keywords: Bureaucracy
Carceral State
History of Data
History of Privacy
History of Technology
History of the State
Subjects: History
American history
Issue Date: 2023
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation explores how criminal background checks became a routine method for screening tens of millions of applicants for jobs, professional licenses, and other civil benefits in the twentieth century United States. At the turn of the century, states around the world experimented with techniques for documenting individual identity. Among these, fingerprinting emerged as a preferred means for tracking suspects in the criminal-legal system, but also for verifying identity and gathering information in a variety of civil bureaucracies. Punitive Paperwork shows how criminal and civil fingerprinting converged, as American law enforcement, and especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), quickly established hegemony over Americans’ biometric data. This convergence made criminalized populations a highly identifiable group subject to discrimination in vast areas of American life throughout the century. Previous scholarship has interpreted widespread criminal background checks as a product of the United States’ post-1970 turn toward computerization of court records and “law and order” politics in the age of mass incarceration. This dissertation argues that criminal background checks were already well-established decades earlier through routine exchanges of fingerprint records between law enforcement and civil agencies in the analog age. The FBI held the world’s largest collection of criminal fingerprint records by the 1930s, and by the end of World War II the overwhelming majority of the 100 million sets of fingerprint records it held came from Americans who were not accused of any crime. By the 1970s, in fact, a growing number of policymakers concluded that the widespread availability of criminal records to noncriminal justice agencies had spiraled “out of effective control,” but their efforts to reign in widespread abuses of this data proved to be too little, too late. Punitive Paperwork concludes that the United States has long functioned as a “biometric state,” where mass fingerprinting and criminal background checks were less a carefully reasoned public safety strategy than a product of the peculiar informational logic of analog recordkeeping and behind-the-scenes administrative decision making. It shows how these practices amplified discrimination against criminalized communities in the civil sphere while deflecting responsibility for the accuracy or relevance of this data.
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History

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