Reframing biometric surveillance: from a means of inspection to a form of control

  • Avi MarcianoEmail author
Original Paper


This paper reviews the social scientific literature on biometric surveillance, with particular attention to its potential harms. It maps the harms caused by biometric surveillance, traces their theoretical origins, and brings these harms together in one integrative framework to elucidate their cumulative power. Demonstrating these harms with examples from the United States, the European Union, and Israel, I propose that biometric surveillance be addressed, evaluated and reframed as a new form of control rather than simply another means of inspection. I conclude by delineating three features of biometric technologies—complexity, objectivity, and agency—that demonstrate their social power and draw attention to the importance of studying biometric surveillance.


Surveillance Biometric technologies Social sorting Identity management Privacy Algorithms 



This article draws on my doctoral dissertation, which I wrote at the Department of Communication at the University of Haifa, under the supervision of Dr. Rivka Ribak. I want to thank her for the dedicated mentorship and guidance.


  1. Aas, K. F. (2006). ‘The body does not lie’: Identity, risk and trust in technoculture. Crime, Media, Culture, 2(2), 143–158. Scholar
  2. Ajana, B. (2012). Biometric citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 16(7), 851–870. Scholar
  3. Altman, I. (1977). Privacy regulation: Culturally universal or culturally specific? Journal of Social Issues, 33(3), 66–84. Scholar
  4. Bauman, Z. (1993). Modernity and ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  5. Bauman, Z. (2000). Social issues of law and order. British Journal of Criminology, 40(2), 205–221. Scholar
  6. Beer, D. (2017). The social power of algorithms. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), 1–13. Scholar
  7. Biometric System Market. Biometric System Market by Authentication Type (Single-Factor and Multifactor), Functionality Type (Contact, Non-Contact, and Combined), Component (Hardware and Software), Application, and Geography - Global Forecast to 2023.
  8. Chavarri-Guerra, Y., & Soto-Perez-de-Celis, E. (2015). Loss of fingerprints. New England Journal of Medicine. Scholar
  9. Davis, A. (1997). The body as password. Wired.Google Scholar
  10. DHS (2012). Privacy impact assessment for the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). In U. S. D. O. H. Security (Ed.): San Francisco: The Electronic Frontier Foundation.Google Scholar
  11. DRM (2017). Analysis of the pilot’s summarizing reports of the biometric database management authority (4th edition).Google Scholar
  12. Erjavec, K. (2003). Media construction of identity through moral panics: Discourses of immigration in Slovenia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 29(1), 83–101. Scholar
  13. EUlisa (2013). Annual report on the 2013 activities of the Central Unit of Eurodac pursuant to Article 24(1) of Regulation (EC) No 2725/2000. The European Commission.Google Scholar
  14. Fussey, P., & Coaffee, J. (2012). Urban spaces of surveillance. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 201–208). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. Gale, P. (2004). The refugee crisis and fear: Populist politics and media discourse. Journal of Sociology, 40(4), 321–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gandy, O. H. (2009). Coming to terms with chance: Engaging rational discrimination and cumulative disadvantage. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  17. Gandy, O. H. (2012). Statistical surveillance: Remote sensing in the digital age. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 125–132). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Gelb, A., & Clark, J. (2013). Identification for development: The biometrics revolution, Working paper 315. Washington, DC: Centre for Global Development.Google Scholar
  19. Graham, S., & Wood, D. (2003). Digitizing surveillance: Categorization, space, inequality. Critical Social Policy, 23(2), 227–248. Scholar
  20. IBDMA (2013). The protocol for the experimentation of the biometric system.Google Scholar
  21. IBDMA (2014). The first IBDMA’s periodical report.Google Scholar
  22. Introna, L. D. (2011). The enframing of code: Agency, originality and the plagiarist. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(6), 113–141. Scholar
  23. Introna, L. D., & Wood, D. (2004). Picturing algorithmic surveillance: The politics of facial recognition systems. Surveillance & Society, 2(2/3), 177–198.Google Scholar
  24. Isin, E. F., & Turner, B. S. (2002). Citizenship studies: An introduction. In E. F. Isin & B. S. Turner (Eds.), Handbook of citizenship studies (pp. 1–10). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  25. Jones, C. (2014). Analysis: 11 years of Eurodac. (Vol. 16): Statewatch Analyses.Google Scholar
  26. Kitchin, R. (2017). Thinking critically about and researching algorithms. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), 14–29. Scholar
  27. Kranzberg, M. (1986). Technology and history: “Kranzberg’s laws”. Technology and Culture, 27(3), 544–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Larsson, M., Pedersen, N. L., & Stattin, H. (2007). Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood. Biological Psychology, 75(2), 165–175. Scholar
  29. Lebovic, N., & Pinchuk, A. (2010, The State of Israel and the biometric database law: Political centrism and the post-democratic state. The Israel Democracy Institute.Google Scholar
  30. Levin, S. (2016). A beauty contest was judged by AI and the robots didn’t like dark skin. The Guardian.Google Scholar
  31. Lianos, M. (2003). Social control after Foucault. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 412–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lianos, M., & Douglas, M. (2000). Dangerization and the end of deviance: The institutional environment. British Journal of Criminology, 40(2), 261–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lynch, J. (2012). From fingerprints to DNA: Biometric data collection in US immigrant communities and beyond. San Francisco: The Electronic Frontier FoundationGoogle Scholar
  34. Lyon, D. (2003). Surveillance as social sorting: Computer codes and mobile bodies. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as social sorting: Privacy, risk, and digital discrimination (pp. 13–30). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  35. Lyon, D. (2007). National ID cards: Crime-control, citizenship and social sorting. Policing, 1(1), 111–118. Scholar
  36. Lyon, D. (2008). Biometrics, identification and surveillance. Bioethics, 22(9), 499–508. Scholar
  37. Lyon, D., Haggerty, K. D., & Ball, K. (2012). Introducing surveillance studies. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 1–11). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  38. Magnet, S., & Rodgers, T. (2011). Stripping for the state: Whole body imaging technologies and the surveillance of othered bodies. Feminist Media Studies, 12(1), 101–118. Scholar
  39. Magnet, S. A. (2011). When biometrics fail: Gender, race, and the technology of identity. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Martin, A. K., & Whitley, E. A. (2013). Fixing identity? Biometrics and the tensions of material practices. Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), 52–60. Scholar
  41. McCullagh, D. (2001). Call it Super Bowl face scan I. Wired.Google Scholar
  42. Monahan, T. (2012). Surveillance and terrorism. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 285–291). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Muller, B. J. (2004). Dis)qualified bodies: Securitization, citizenship and ‘identity management’. Citizenship Studies, 8(3), 279–294. Scholar
  44. Murray, H. (2007). Monstrous play in negative spaces: Illegible bodies and the cultural construction of biometric technology. The Communication Review, 10(4), 347–365. Scholar
  45. Nanavati, S., Thieme, M., & Nanavati, R. (2002). Biometrics: Identity verification in a networked world (Wiley tech brief series). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  46. Norris, C. (2012). The success of failure: Accounting for the global growth of CCTV. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 251–258). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  47. Norris, C., Moran, J., & Armstrong, G. (1998). Algorithmic surveillance: The future of automated visual surveillance. In C. Norris, J. Moran & G. Armstrong (Eds.), Surveillance, closed circuit television, and social control (pp. 255–275). Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  48. Nousbeck, J., Burger, B., Fuchs-Telem, D., Pavlovsky, M., Fenig, S., Sarig, O., et al. (2011). A mutation in a skin-specific isoform of SMARCAD1 causes autosomal-dominant adermatoglyphia. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 89(2), 302–307. Scholar
  49. Ong, A. (2005). (Re)Articulations of Citizenship. Political Science and Politics, 38(4), 697–699. Scholar
  50. Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Pugliese, J. (2005). In silico race and the heteronomy of biometric proxies: Biometrics in the context of civilian life, border security and counter-terrorism laws. The Australian Feminist Law Journal, 23, 1–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Pugliese, J. (2010). Biometrics: Bodies, technologies, biopolitics. New York: Routledge).Google Scholar
  53. Puri, C., Narang, K., Tiwari, A., Vatsa, M., & Singh, R. (2010). On analysis of rural and urban Indian fingerprint images. In A. Kumar, & D. Zhang (Eds.), Ethics and policy of biometrics: Third international conference on ethics and policy of biometrics and international data sharing, ICEB 2010, Hong Kong, January 4–5, 2010: Revised selected papers (pp. 55–61, Lecture notes in computer science, Vol. 6005). Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  54. Rule, J. B. (2012). “Needs” for surveillance and the movement to protect privacy. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 64–71). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  55. Salter, M. B. (2004). Passports, mobility, and security: How smart can the border be? International Studies Perspectives, 5(1), 71–91. Scholar
  56. Schmitt, C. (1996). The concept of the political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  57. Stalder, F., & Lyon, D. (2003). Electronic identity cards and social classification. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as social sorting: Privacy, risk, and digital discrimination (pp. 77–93). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  58. Torpey, J. (2000). The invention of the passport: Surveillance, citizenship, and the state (Cambridge studies in law and society). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Turow, J. (2006). Niche envy: Marketing discrimination in the digital age. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  60. van der Ploeg, I. (1999). The illegal body: `Eurodac’ and the politics of biometric identification. Ethics and Information Technology, 1(4), 295–302. Scholar
  61. van Der Ploeg, I. (2003). Biometrics and the body as information: Normative issues of the socio-technical coding of the body. In D. Lyon (Ed.), Surveillance as social sorting: Privacy, risk, and digital discrimination (pp. 57–73). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  62. van Der Ploeg, I. (2005). The machine-readable body: Essays on biometrics and the informatization of the body. Maastricht: Shaker Publishing.Google Scholar
  63. van Der Ploeg, I. (2006). Borderline identities: The enrollment of bodies in the technological reconstruction of borders. In T. Monahan (Ed.), Surveillance and security: Technological politics and power in everyday life (pp. 177–193). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  64. van Zoonen, L. (2013). From identity to identification: Fixating the fragmented self. Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), 44–51. Scholar
  65. Wayman, J., Jain, A., Maltoni, D., & Maio, D. (2005). An introduction to biometric authentication systems. In J. Wayman, A. Jain, D. Maltoni & D. Maio (Eds.), Biometric systems: Technology, design and performance evaluation (pp. 1–20). London: Springer London.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Westin, A. F. (1967). Privacy and freedom. New York: Atheneum.Google Scholar
  67. Williams, M. C. (2003). Words, images, enemies: Securitization and international politics. International Studies Quarterly, 47(4), 511–531. Scholar
  68. Wilson, D. (2006). Biometrics, borders and the ideal suspect. In S. Pickering & L. Weber (Eds.), Borders, mobility and technologies of control (pp. 87–109). The Netherlands: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  70. Wong, M., Choo, S.-P., & Tan, E.-H. (2009). Travel warning with capecitabine. Annals of Oncology. Scholar
  71. Woodward, J. D., Webb, K., Newton, W., Bradley, E. M., M., & Rubenson, D. (2001). Army biometric applications: Identifying and addressing sociocultural concerns. Santa Monica: Rand.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Communication StudiesBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeer-ShevaIsrael
  2. 2.Information Society ProjectYale Law SchoolNew HeavenUSA

Personalised recommendations