Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics [chapter]

Btihaj Ajana
2013 Governing through Biometrics  
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in finding stronger means of securitising identity against the various risks presented by the mobile globalised world. Biometric technology has featured quite prominently on the policy and security agenda of many countries. It is being promoted as the solution du jour for protecting and managing the uniqueness of identity in order to combat identity theft and fraud, crime and terrorism, illegal work and employment, and to efficiently govern
more » ... ous domains and services including asylum, immigration and social welfare. In this paper, I shall interrogate the ways in which biometrics is about the uniqueness of identity and what kind of identity biometrics is concerned with. I argue that in posing such questions at the outset, we can start delimiting the distinctive bioethical stakes of biometrics beyond the all-toofamiliar concerns of privacy, data protection and the like. I take cue mostly from Cavarero's Arendt-inspired distinction between the "what" and the "who" elements of a person, and from Ricoeur's distinction between the "idem" and "ipse" versions of identity. By engaging with these philosophical distinctions and concepts, and with particular reference to the example of asylum policy, I seek to examine and emphasise an important ethical issue pertaining to the practice of biometric identification. This issue relates mainly to the paradigmatic shift from the biographical story (which for so long has been the means by which an asylum application is assessed) to biodigital samples (that are now the basis for managing and controlling the identities of asylum applicants). The purging of identity from its narrative dimension lies at the core of biometric technology's overzealous aspiration to accuracy, precision and objectivity, and raises one of the most pressing bioethical questions vis-à-vis the realm of identification. 2 Who are you? Tu quis es. That is an abyssal question. Schmitt 1950 Identity is never a peaceful acquisition: it is claimed as a guarantee against a threat of annihilation that can be figured by "another identity" (a foreign identity) or by an "erasing of identities" (a depersonalisation). Balibar 1995, 186 Introduction Historically, and whether at the micro (individual) or macro (societal) level, the notion of identity has often been bound up with that of conflict or crisis. Contemporary articulations and practices of identity are no exception. They are increasingly being marked by what Anthony Giddens (1991) refers to as "ontological insecurity"; that is, a deep sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the question of 'who someone is' in relation to oneself and to others, be they other individuals or institutions. Rightly or wrongly, out of convenience or out of paranoia, identity is now routinely being problematised in terms of risk, or more specifically, as being at risk; the risk of fraud, the risk of crime, the risk of terrorism, the risk of illegal immigration, the risk of illegal working, and so on. And within the current policy debates and discussions, with regard to the myriad of security challenges and the difficulties of managing and administering social services, the age-old question of "who is who?" continues to occupy centre stage, not only because of its highly political relevance, especially to issues relating to the much-contested domain of membership and the attribution of rights and obligations, but also because of its inherent and irreducible ambiguity, which poses a challenge to the ongoing and enduring attempts to find a definitive and fixed answer to it. As a response to such challenges, various techniques and technologies have been mobilised with the aim to protect and manage the uniqueness of identity. Among the most notable of these techniques is the securitisation of identity through biometric technology. 3 Biometrics, which is literally the measurement of life, refers to the technology of measuring, analysing and processing the digital representations of unique biological data and behavioural traits such as fingerprints, eye retinas, irises, voice and facial patterns, body odours, hand geometry, etc. It can be used in two ways: identification/recognition in order to determine who the person is, through one-to-many comparison, and verification/authentication in order to determine whether the person is who he claims to be, through one-to-one comparison (Mordini and Petrini 2007, 5). The emergence of biometrics as a "popular candidate" (Lyon 2003, 667) for identification and authentication systems is mainly due to its ability to automate the process of linking bodies to identities, to distribute biological and behavioural data across computer networks and databases, to be adapted to different uses and purposes, and to (allegedly) provide more accurate, reliable, and tamper-proof means of verifying identity. Like other (traditional) identification systems, the procedure of biometric identification consists of four stages: enrolment (digital representations of unique biological features are captured through a sensor device, and then processed through an algorithmic operation to produce a template), storage (the produced template is stored on a database or/and on a chipcard), acquisition (as with the enrolment stage, a biometric image is captured and transformed through similar algorithmic procedures into a live template), and matching (the live template is compared to the stored template to establish whether the person is known to the system, in the case of database, or whether the live biometric capture corresponds to the one on the card, in the case of chipcard) (European Commission 2005a, 35). Worth mentioning here that the principle of biometrics is not new, but has its roots in various earlier technologies which also sought to bind the body to identity for the purpose of identification. Examples of such technologies can be found in the developments that took place during the nineteenth century. Anthropometry and fingerprinting, for instance, are some of the main techniques that were adopted then. The initial rationale behind these technologies was to create a criminal history by which the state could distinguish between first-time offenders and 'recidivists', and respond to the challenges posed by the increasing migration of individuals and the rapid urbanisation of cities (Cole 2003, 2-3). Both of these technologies relied on the body as a means of personal identification (through various mechanisms such as 'measurement', photographing, documentation, classification, etc.) and on storage systems for archiving and retrieving information about identity. In recent years, and particularly following the events of September 11 and other attacks, biometric technology has witnessed a massive growth and a rapid proliferation within many areas of society. Its application, which was traditionally reserved for particular practices such as
doi:10.1057/9781137290755_4 fatcat:6ypuazhe4jbrbapsj4lopqdmcy