Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 237–258 | Cite as

Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics

  • Btihaj AjanaEmail author


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 various 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-too-familiar 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 bio-digital 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.


Biometrics Bioethics Cavarero Identity Narrative Ricoeur 



Thanks to the anonymous reviewers and to Catherine Mills for pointing out some of the limitations of narrative ethics discussed in the concluding section.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.BIOS Centre, London School of EconomicsLondonUK

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