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.
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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.
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).
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.
Thanks to Nikolas Rose for this formulation.
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.”
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!
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).
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.
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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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Ajana, B. Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 237–258 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-010-9228-4