The Body Electric

What’s the big deal about biometrics?

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | New Delhi | Published:January 30, 2011 1:11 pm

What’s the big deal about biometrics?

A few weeks back,I saw a bunch of remarkably self-possessed seven or eight year olds playing what they called a “spy game”.

At one point,one of them punched some imaginary numbers into the air,held up a leaf to her eyes and said,“Iris scan,tu-tu-tu”,and stepped across a line. I was reluctantly impressed — but since when did biometric technology become child’s play? And is this airy acceptance a good thing?

Biometric applications have boomed in recent years,for intelligence and surveillance,as well as better welfare targeting. I know someone who,right after the 9/11 attacks,invested heavily in a facial recognition software company,believing that such stock was bound to soar in a security-addled United States.

Many of us,though,are ambivalent,if not squeamish,about the ways in which we can be physically studied for unique identifiers,which can then be compared with a master record — whether this is to enter a building or a new country,or for more sinister forensic purposes where your own body can testify against you. Fingerprints,DNA info,retina patterns and hand geometry,the timbre of your voice,subtle residues and traces,can be identified and corroborated. Surveillance is always objectionable,but bodily surveillance seems even more repugnant. The Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben is more extreme than most,refusing to travel to the US,because of his resistance to the way “the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity…the body’s biological life” is forced to submit to state control.

But why do we draw back from body-scanning

devices? Is it simply an extension of irrational anxieties about unfamiliar technologies,like the old belief that someone who takes your photograph can steal your soul? Or the fanciful idea that those who claim some part of your physical self also have a grip on your interiority?

Fingerprints have long been employed in legal documents. During the Gold Rush,when the US tried to allow Chinese merchants in while keeping out its labourers,it needed something more sophisticated than the use of hand calluses to tell them apart. And so passports came to acquire the form they now have,largely unchanged since the early 20th century. Photographs soon became essential to the document,and by now,many countries have fitted them out with biometric identification procedures.

Fingerprints have been used as seals and signatures in ancient Babylon,China and Egypt,but it was a British administrator in India who started recording fingerprints and using them to settle contract disputes and fraud.

Fingerprinting also has an unsavoury connection with eugenics — Sir Francis Galton used them to classify races. It’s a compelling idea,that the ridges and whorls on your fingers are yours and yours alone,a unique biological autograph. However,fingerprint analysis is not as exact and objective a science as we have supposed for over a century — partly because the reading and comparing of fingerprints still involves our own fallible judgment. Even electronic scans are right only 95-98 per cent of the time,according to the FBI. The same way,face recognition software can be foiled by weight loss or gain,retinal scans don’t work on people with cataracts,iris scans can be confounded by the tilt of your head and ambient light. But these are just quibbles — there is little doubt that with biometric instruments,it is now possible to minutely target populations. You can be found and placed in an instant. Of course,how you view grand identification schemes depends on your attitude towards state power.

With the UID project,we’ve been through much dispute over whether the welfare benefits of such exhaustive identification outweigh the privacy costs. Certainly,as Simon Cole writes in Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Investigation,the desire to identify,and therefore control,these “suspect” bodies is what fuelled the need for identification technologies. Vagrants,immigrants,people of colour,colonial subjects,degenerates and prostitutes — these are the groups on whom these technologies were first deployed. However,we know how omniscient and omnipotent the state already is — it doesn’t need a unique ID number to wield power over citizens. Given the level to which we are already watched by unaccountable corporations,this level of paranoia about the state’s panopticon seems overblown. Instead of objecting to the technology,it makes sense to redirect that energy towards deciding how this private information will be guarded.

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