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date: 08 December 2022

Credit Reporting and the History of Commercial Surveillance in Americalocked

Credit Reporting and the History of Commercial Surveillance in Americalocked

  • Josh LauerJosh LauerCommunication, University of New Hampshire

Summary

The first credit reporting organizations emerged in the United States during the 19th century to address problems of risk and uncertainty in an expanding market economy. Early credit reporting agencies assisted merchant lenders by collecting and centralizing information about the business activities and reputations of unknown borrowers throughout the country. These agencies quickly evolved into commercial surveillance networks, amassing huge archives of personal information about American citizens and developing credit rating systems to rank them. Shortly after the Civil War, separate credit reporting organizations devoted to monitoring consumers, rather than businesspeople, also began to emerge to assist credit-granting retailers. By the early 20th century, hundreds of local credit bureaus dissected the personal affairs of American consumers, forming the genesis of a national consumer credit surveillance infrastructure.

The history of American credit reporting reveals fundamental links between the development of modern capitalism and contemporary surveillance society. These connections became increasingly apparent during the late 20th century as technological advances in computing and networked communication fueled the growth of new information industries, raising concerns about privacy and discrimination. These connections and concerns, however, are not new. They can be traced to 19th-century credit reporting organizations, which turned personal information into a commodity and converted individual biographies into impersonal financial profiles and risk metrics. As these disembodied identities and metrics became authoritative representations of one’s reputation and worth, they exerted real effects on one’s economic life chances and social legitimacy. While drawing attention to capitalism’s historical twin, surveillance, the history of credit reporting illuminates the origins of surveillance-based business models that became ascendant during the 21st century.

Subjects

  • Late 19th-Century History
  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • History of Science and Technology

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