Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    I borrow this term from Bolter and Grusin (1999) for whom “a medium is that which remediates. It is that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real” (ibid., 65). They also place the body within this dual process of remediation, suggesting that the body can function as a medium while being the subject of mediation. Although the authors do not address the technology of biometrics as such, I regard their overall formulation as a case in point vis-à-vis biometrics. For as mentioned earlier, biometric technology does refashion and thereby remediate its predecessors, i.e. prior technologies of identification (anthropometry and fingerprinting for instance), while, at the same time, rendering the body as both the medium (the means by which measurement is performed) and the “mediated” (the object of measurement), i.e. the remediated.

  2. 2.

    In his discussion about the implications of biometric technology, Alterman distinguishes between two sets of data; biocentric data (i.e., biometric data) and indexical data (i.e., social security number, driver’s license number, etc.). While the former is centred on the “body”, the latter, on the other hand, has no “internal relation to an embodied person; it possesses no property that is tied to our psychological or physical conception of self” (Alterman 2003, 144).

  3. 3.

    And here, we should stress again that the use of the body in the domain of identity/identification is not unique to the twenty-first century nor to biometric technology.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to Nikolas Rose for this formulation.

  5. 5.

    Interestingly, for Jean-Luc Nancy, one way of interrupting such substantialist discourses (for example, citizenship, individuality, community) is through literature and writing which bring to the fore the singularity of each and everyone, and resist forms of identitarianism and fusion (be they political, national, societal, or otherwise). And, Ricoeur (1992, 115) describes literature as “a vast laboratory […] through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics.”

  6. 6.

    Most of the current technological developments are geared towards this dimension of “at distance”. Ironically, their performance is often measured and judged by how much distance they can flatten as well as how much distance they can guarantee and maintain. Some touch devices are in fact designed to eliminate touch. Notice, for instance, next time you board a London bus and touch your Oyster Travelcard, that there is no more need to address or even “look” at the bus driver. Just “scan and go”, thus is the way!

  7. 7.

    Here, suffering is not to be understood solely in a negative sense, but as an entire spectrum of experiences and affects including those of resistance, defiance and transgression (of borders and interiority, for instance).

  8. 8.

    I am intentionally using the phrase of “the person seeking asylum” instead of “asylum seeker” for the former denotes an “action” whereas the latter is merely an identity ascription.

  9. 9.

    Jan Marta (1997, 206) also speaks of the notion of segregation when addressing some aspects of the physician−patient dynamics in relation to the issue of informed consent.

References

  1. Aas, K.F. 2006. “The body does not lie”: Identity, risk and trust in technoculture. Crime Media Culture 2(2): 143–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Agamben, G. 1993. The coming community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ajana, B. 2006. Immigration Interrupted. Journal for Cultural Research 10(3): 260–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Alterman, A. 2003. “A piece of yourself”: Ethical issues in biometric identification. Ethics and Information Technology 5(3): 139–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Amoore, L. 2006. Biometric borders: Governing mobilities in the war on terror. Political Geography 25: 336–351.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Arendt, H. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Arras, J.D. 1997. Nice story, but so what? Narrative and justification in ethics. In Stories and their limits: narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, 65–89. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Atkins, K. 2000. Personal identity and the importance of one’s own body: A response to Derek Parfit. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 8(3): 329–349.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Atkins, K. 2004. Narrative identity, practical identity and ethical subjectivity. Continental Philosophy Review 37: 341–366.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bhabha, H. 1994. The location of culture. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Balibar, E. 1995. Culture and identity (working notes). In The identity in question, ed. J. Rajchman, 173–198. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bauman, Z. 2004. Identity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Benjamin, W. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Bolter, J.D., and R. Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Brody, H. 1997. Who gets to tell the story? Narrative in postmodern bioethics. In Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, 18–30. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Butler, J. 2005. Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Carblanc, A. 2009. Human rights, identity and anonymity: Digital identity and its management in e-Society. In Identity, security and democracy, ed. E. Mordini et al., 11–18. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Caplan, J., and J. Torpey (eds.). 2001. Documenting individual identity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Cavarero, A. 2000. Relating narratives: Storytelling and selfhood. London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Ceyhan, A. 2008. Technologization of security: Management of uncertainty and risk in the age of biometrics. Surveillance and society 5(2): 102–123.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Cole, S.A. 2003. Fingerprint identification and the criminal justice system: Historical lessons for the DNA debate. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/dnabook/Simon_Cole_(4)_2-24-03.doc

  22. Deleuze, G. 1992. Postscript on the societies of control. http://pdflibrary.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/deleuzecontrol.pdf

  23. Diken, B. 2004. From refugee camps to gated communities: Biopolitics and the end of the city. Citizenship Studies 8(1): 83–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. European Commission. 2005a. Biometrics at the frontiers: Assessing the impact on society. http://europa.eu.int/comm/justice_home/doc_centre/freetravel/doc/biometrics_eur21585_en.pdf

  25. European Commission. 2005b. EURODAC guarantees effective management of the Common European Asylum System. http://www.libertysecurity.org/article429.html

  26. European Union. 2006. Eurodac a European Union-wide electronic system for the identification of asylum-seekers. http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/fsj/asylum/identification/fsj_asylum_identification_en.htm

  27. Foucault, M. 1975. Discipline and punish. London: Allen Lane.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Foucault, M. 2003. Society must be defended. In Society must be defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975–1976, ed. M. Bertani and A. Fotana. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Frank, A.W. 1997. Enacting illness stories: When, what, and why. In Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, 31–49. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gates, K. 2005. Biometrics and post-9/11 technostalgia. Social Text 23: 35–53.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Giddens, A. 1991. Modernity and self-identity. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Greenspan, H. 2003. Listening to Holocaust survivors: Interpreting a repeated story. In Up close and personal: The teaching and learning of narrative research, ed. R. Josselson et al., 101–112. Washington: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Haggerty, K.D., and R.V. Ericson. 2000. The Surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology 51(4): 605–622.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. Haimes, E. 2002. What can the social sciences contribute to the study of ethics? Theoretical, empirical and substantive considerations. Bioethics 16: 89–113.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. Hayter, T. 2000. Open borders: The case against immigration controls. London: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hazelton, L. (2008). The airport security scanner that can read your mind. Daily Mail, September 24. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1060972/The-airport-security-scanner-read-mind.html

  37. Hedgecoe, A.M. 2004. Critical bioethics: beyond the social science critique of applied ethics. Bioethics 18: 120–143.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. Heidegger, M. 1977. The question concerning technology, and other essays. New York: Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Home Office. 2002. Secure borders, safe haven: Integration with diversity in modern Britain. http://www.archive2.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm53/5387/cm5387.pdf

  40. Home Office. 2008. Everyone’s unique. Let us keep it that way. http://www.ips.gov.uk/

  41. Hurwitz, A. 1999. The 1990 Dublin Convention: A comprehensive assessment. International Journal of Refugee Law 11: 646–677.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Johnston, P. (2001). Identity cards and cash for all asylum seekers. Telegraph, October 30 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2001/10/30/nasy30.xml

  43. Koslowski, R. 2003. Information technology and integrated border management. http://se2.dcaf.ch/serviceengine/Files/DCAF/29432/ichaptersection_singledocument/9EB60F9B-E5A2-4986-8CD5-F6122E493439/en/04_paper_Koslowski.pdf

  44. Kottman, P.A. 2000. Introduction to relating narratives: Storytelling and selfhood, by Adriana Cavarero, vii − xxxi. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Lyon, D. 2003. Technology vs “terrorism”: Circuits of city surveillance since September 11th. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27: 666–678.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Lyon, D. 2008. Biometrics, identification and surveillance. Bioethics 22(9): 499–508.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. Marta, J. 1997. Toward a bioethics for the twenty-first century: A Ricoeurian poststructuralist narrative hermeneutic approach to informed consent. In Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, 198–214. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Montello, M. 1997. Narrative competence. In Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, 185–197. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Mordini, E., and C. Petrini. 2007. Ethical and social implications of biometric identification technology. Ann Ist Super Sanita 43(1): 5–11.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  50. Mordini, E., and C. Ottolini. 2007. Body identification and medicine: Ethical and social considerations. Ann Ist Super Sanita 43(1): 51–60.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  51. Muller, B.J. 2004. (Dis)Qualified bodies: Securitization, citizenship and identity management. Citizenship Studies 8(3): 279–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Nancy, J.-L. 1991. The inoperative community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Nancy, J.-L. 2000. Being singular plural. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Nelson, H.L. 1997. Introduction: How to do things with stories. In Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics, ed. H.L. Nelson, vii–xx. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Nyers, P. 2004. Introduction: What’s left of citizenship? Citizenship Studies 8(3): 203–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Ricoeur, P. 1992. Oneself as another. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Ricoeur, P. 2005. The course of recognition. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Rose, N. 1999. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Schechtman, M. 1990. Personhood and personal identity. The Journal of Philosophy 87(2): 71–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Schmitt, C. 1950. Ex capitivitate salus. Cologne: Greven Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Sparke, M. 2006. A neoliberal nexus: Economy, security and the biopolitics of citizenship on the border. Political Geography 25: 151–180.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Stepnisky, J. 2007. The biomedical self: Hermeneutic considerations. Social Theory & Health 5: 187–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Strawson, G. 2004. Against narrativity. Ratio 17(4): 428–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Valo, M. 2006. Biométrie—Extrême fichage: Danger! September: Le Monde. 2.

    Google Scholar 

  65. van Munster, R. 2005. The EU and the Management of Immigration Risk in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, University of Southern Denmark Political Science Publications.

  66. van der Ploeg, I. 1999a. Written on the body: Biometrics and identity. Computers and Society: 37−44.

  67. van der Ploeg, I. 1999b. The illegal body: ‘Eurodac’ and the politics of biometric identification. Ethics and Information Technology 1: 286–300.

    Google Scholar 

  68. van der Ploeg, I. 2009. Machine-Readable bodies: Biometrics, informatization and surveillance. In Identity, security and democracy, ed. E. Mordini et al., 85–94. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Yuval-Davis, N., F. Anthias, and E. Kofman. 2005. Secure borders and safe haven and the gendered politics of belonging: Beyond social cohesion. Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(3): 513–535.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Zylinska, J. 2004. The universal acts, Judith Butler and the biopolitics of immigration. Cultural Studies 18(4): 523–537.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgement

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

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Btihaj Ajana.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ajana, B. Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 237–258 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-010-9228-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Biometrics
  • Bioethics
  • Cavarero
  • Identity
  • Narrative
  • Ricoeur