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Biometric Scanning and Civil Rights, Part 3

by joseph    Dec 10, 2001

editor's note: last week, we ran a piece about the impending installation of biometric facial scanners at the Los Angeles Airport (find it here). This is a further expansion on that piece. enjoy.

Until now, I had been convinced that the September 11 attacks were masterminded by none other than Representative Gary Condit (I mean, most people these days would say "Chandra Who?"). But as time goes on, Iim beginning to think that the whole thing was instigated by high-tech security companies. I mean, the use of biometrics at the Superbowl two years ago caused a huge furor, and Floridais use of the technology of ifaceprintingi at traffic lights provoked enough outcry that the practice was discontinued. All this is due to change, it seems, and despite the hand-wringing by the Cassandras of Big Brotherhood, I cannot imagine that there will be enough public outcry to overcome the tide of paranoid fear that seems to have swept the country. No one wants to board an airplane and find themselves flying into a tall building a couple of hours later. In my opinion, air travel is horrid enough as it is--airports full of long lines and strikingly unhelpful personnel, the stomach-churning take-offs and landings. One gets used to it, people tell me, but one also gets used to gang sodomy after enough time in prison. Iive always opted for the train.

And now, with the addition of biometric scans in airports such as LAX (and being considered at many major terminals across the country), I feel like I have another reason to disdain air travel. I am a (mostly) law-abiding citizen without even a traffic violation to my name, but I am troubled by the idea that soon databases will be swelling with info about my whereabouts. The idea must be that if I were a violent terrorist, I would be apprehended, but how is that information known beforehand? Because I visit web sites that are supportive of Palestinian causes, for instance? Because I donit support the bombing campaign? Because I watch Politically Incorrect?

Moreover, how are we supposed to be assured of the reliability of this technology? Much like the missile defense shield, weire only told how itis supposed to work, but not how it actually parses the ones and zeroes to make us all safe from terrorism. How many accidental detainments will take place? How many people (probably of Middle Eastern descent) will not be allowed to board a plane because their cheek bone-to-lip-to-forehead ratio is too close to someone who once wrote an article critical of Americais Middle East policies?

Trying to do research, one finds that there isnit much publicly available about the new use of biometrics. I say new to distinguish this usage of biometrics from its traditional use, which has been with us since the early part of the 20th century. Biometrics, at its most basic, is simply the numerical analysis of data ("metrics") derived from the life sciences ("bio"). Thus, a study analyzing the efficacy of various treatments for a particular disease to determine the most useful is an example of old-school biometrics.

This new use of the term, in fact, the traditional biometricists seek to disassociate themselves from. The Journal of Biometrics now sports a disclaimer on its web site stating that they know nothing about this use of biometrics and could people please stop calling them. I donit blame them; Iim sure their phone has been ringing off the hook, since theyire pretty much the only presence one can find on the issue. I imagine that, much like missile defense and INS detentions, weire simply not told much about the details, you know, for our protection.

And so what can anyone say about it? It will happen; this use of biometrics will become an increasing part of our lives, and I imagine soon such technology will be employed at grocery stores, at traffic lights, movie theatres . . . I canit imagine that within 20 years we wonit have an infrastructure in place to track pretty much every person any place they care to go. In the wake of September 11, at least for the foreseeable future, who is going to stand up to these changes? Any outcry of protest is going to be met with the inevitable iIf you donit have anything to hide, thereis no reason for you to be concerned about this.i And thatis going to shut a lot of people up. The liberal press has been largely supportive of any and all measures which might (the operative word) decrease the likelihood of a terrorist attack. And so we will continue to watch as technology encroaches upon our freedom in the name of perserving it. Thus, in the wake of September 11, the pendulum swings hard in the direction of more surveillance, more paranoia, more technology seeking to protect us from a nebulous evil Other. The question is whether the pendulum will ever swing back.

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