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Communication Studies


This paper examines fingerprint identification as a mode of state surveillance. Drawing on but critiquing the work of Simon Cole, it argues that the technique yielded a greater, more pervasive form of state surveillance by giving rise to new practices of data collection. This paper also highlights the photograph’s role in fingerprint identification to argue for an essential transformation in law enforcement and surveillance practices announced by the intersection of fingerprinting and photography at the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast to traditional forms of visual surveillance, the collaboration of fingerprint identification and photography extended the surveillance gaze of the state in a manner often attributed to the rise of CCTV, enabling the state to bring all bodies—criminal and non-criminal alike—under surveillance. However, the unique capabilities afforded to the state through the intersection of fingerprint identification and photography remained largely theoretical until the advent of digital technologies in the 1960s and 1970s. At the start of the twenty-first century, advanced visual technologies and new media technologies reflect a restructuring of law enforcement and surveillance practices based on the aggregate collection of identification data. This paper argues that the continued photographing of fingerprints in contemporary law enforcement and state initiatives constitute heightened state surveillance and, as such, demands serious critical attention.


This article was originally published in Surveillance & Society, 3(1): 21-44.