There’s a great piece just out today from Adam Molnar, guesting on Chris Parsons’ blog, about the soon-to-be released British Columbia Services Card, which features a Near-Field Communications (NFC) chip. It’s well worth reading Chris Parsons’ blog on a regular basis anyway, so check it out!
For a while now, I’ve been wondering why the US didn’t attempt to push for a national biometric ID card system in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.
Given reported statements from biometrics industry bosses about 9/11 being ‘what we’ve been waiting for’ and so on, one might have expected there to be a major effort in this direction but officially, as Zureik and Hindle (2004) point out, the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA) was relatively cautious in its post-9/11 press work, although it argued that biometrics had a major role to play in the fight against terrorism. Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend a national ID card scheme, instead limiting itself in its final report to In its final report, to recommending a “biometric entry-exit screening system” for travelers in and out of the USA.
Part of this is because of the uneasy relations between the federal government and states governments, and suspicion of the former from the latter, and particularly from the political right has meant national ID cards have always been out of the question, even in an era of identification. So even though ID is frequently required in social situations, especially in dealing with banks, police and government agencies, the US relies on the ubiquitous driver’s licenses, which are issued by states not by the federal government. I remember from my time living in the US (in Virginia) as a non-driver, that in order to have valid form of ID, I had the choice of either carrying my passport or getting a special non-driver’s driver’s license, which always struck me simply as an absurd commentary on the importance of the automobiles in US life because, being young at the time, the nuances of federal-state relationships escaped me. And of course, passports won’t cut it for most, as less than 50% of US citizens have one.
So, if the apparently ubiquitous threat of terrorism was not going to scare states’ rights advocates and the right in general into swallowing the industry lines about security that they might usually have lapped up, what would? Well, the one thing that scares the right more than terrorism – Mexicans! More seriously, the paranoia about undocumented migrants combined with the spiralling cost of oppressive yet clearly ineffective border control (walls, drones, webcams, vigilantes etc. etc.) seems to have no done what the fear of terrorism could not, and inspired a push on both the centre and the right for ID cards – not that there’s much evidence that biometric ID cards will do a better job of excluding undocumented migrants, given that they do nothing to address what’s driving this migration – the demand for cheap, tax-free labour in the USA.
Today, not only the beltway insider’s bible, the Washington Post has an editorial demanding biometric social security cards for all (and a concomitant reduction in spending on hardening the border) following on from a cross-party senate recommendation, but also the Los Angeles Times, a paper which in the past has often been wary of the march to a ‘surveillance society’ – indeed it was the first major US newspaper to use this term, way back in 1970 as well as publishing critics like Gary Marx (see Murakami Wood, 2009) – has an op-ed arguing for a national ID card. The LA Times version, written by Robert Pastor, also claims that this is necessary to deal with voter fraud, a constant concern of the right and which always has a strong undertone of racism, so it’s unsurprising coming after a black Democrat has been elected as President for a second time in a tight election. Ironically, however, the President whose supporters are clearly the target of such attacks, has recently made it clear that he is also a supporter of a ‘tamper-proof’ national ID system.
No-one has yet made the international competition argument that is also so often used in these debates (‘if India and Brazil can do it, then surely the USA can’), but this debate is now ramping up in a way that even 9/11 couldn’t manage. Interesting times ahead…
There’s been quite a lot of media coverage in the last few days about the ‘High Velocity DNA Tagging System‘, made by UK company Selectamark, and apparently in line to be purchased by several UK police forces. The system uses a kind of airgun that can fire “a uniquely-coded DNA pellet” for up to 30-40 metres, which “can be used to mark an individual so that they can be apprehended at a less confrontational time for officers.” Claims on the website include one that the microdots of artificial DNA can penetrate through clothing and mark the skin of individuals, and also that the artificial DNA used can result in ‘infinite number’ of unique numerical identifiers.
None of this is entirely new: Selectamark is a company who’s core business is anti-theft marking of equipment, and essentially what they have done is create a gun-based delivery system for an existing technology that was previously used to mark things, thus turning it into a system for identifying individual human beings, in much the same way as has been suggested would occur with RFID implants (but which has not yet really happened in any widespread fashion). Like RFID, the identification is not biometric, i.e. resulting from unique bodily characteristics, but what amounts to a high-tech form of instant temporary tattooing or paint-marking. The company is silent on how temporary this is – and whether the microdots – which are just visible, but show up better under UV light – can be easily removed or washed off by those tagged.
What’s also really interesting is the imagery deployed in the website. Of course there are the usual images of policemen with large guns (here complete with light source for night-time use). These guns, like tasers, have an interestingly toy-like quality to them with their bright orange plastic finish. Guns that aren’t really guns…
However what’s more interesting are the background images used on the site. The targets of the tagging system are clearly depicted in one background image and will be recognisable to all British readers – ‘hoodies’ – the marginalized urban youth who were implicated in the rioting in London in 2011 (although there is also an inevitable pop culture association, especially with all that light-saber-y UV around, with the evil Sith from the Star Wars franchise).
The youths are depicted encircled in lines of UV-like light whose coils also reflect the image of DNA, which is used here as another background image.
The late Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee described DNA as a ‘cultural icon‘, and indeed, the never-really-explained ‘artificial DNA’ technology which underpins Selectamark’s product seems deliberate discursively confused with exisiting DNA identification technologies, or at least the association is clear: that DNA fingerprinting, which is already understood in media discouse as standing for absolute certainty as to identification, is ‘the same’ as this technology. And clearly this sounds better than associating it, as I did earlier, with tattooing – which has a much less wholesome image when it comes to the state’s usage (Nazi death camps etc.).
And then the lines of light that surround the youth also seem to beam out across and enclose the entire world, which is both a standard marketing trope (“we are a global company”) but also a shift in scale that reflects the way in which security and surveillance has moved, to encompass the globe. The world is also depicted as dark with the suggestion of a coming sunrise (fitting in with the overall ‘crime lurks in the darkness and Selectamark will shine a (UV) light in it” theme) and almost entirely urban:
But then what is the value in this global world, which Selectamark (and the police) are seeking to protect? What is the source of the light? Well, the answer, in the final background image, will surprise no-one. It isn’t those who need justice, the poor, the downtrodden, the huddled masses, it’s big companies:
The corporate sector is depicted as icons streaming information-superhighway style from the light along grid patterns: rational, clean and bright and filling, overcoming, the darkness beyond, in a corporate version of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We are saved! Thank-you, Selectamark and your High Velocity DNA Tagging!
I’ve been following a case in San Antonio, Texas, over the last few months in which a couple with literalist biblical Christian beliefs had challenged their daughter’s school over its introduction of RFID-enabled name tags and here are some random thoughts. The latest news is that the pupil, Andrea Hernandez, has lost in the US District Court – it could still be taken higher. The case has attracted plenty of coverage internationally, all largely emphasizing the fact that the student concerned had been threatened with expulsion for her (or her family’s) stance, and the ‘mark of the beast’ rhetoric deployed by the parents and the organisation that enabled them to bring the case, the evangelical Christian civil rights organisation, The Rutherford Institute.
A standard Surveillance Studies analysis might be that this was another case of security at all costs in a risk society, and surveillance as the silver bullet for a non-existant problem or a at least an actual problem that might have been solved by other methods. But actually things are rather more complicated and perhaps more mundane here, and the answers seem to lie, as Francesca Menichelli has suggested in her recent (and as yet unpublished) PhD on the installation of CCTV camera systems in small towns in Italy, in regional political economy and local government competition.
According to the local newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, when the scheme was introduced, the plan by Northside Independepent School District was essentially not a security or an organisational issue but a matter of gaining access to extra finance. Although the scheme was estimated to cost $525,065 to implement and $136,005 per annum in administration and maintenance, the extra-detailed attendance information resulting from the chip cards could enable them district to access around $1.7 million in state grants.
Essentially, surveillance here is simply something that circulates in competition between entities -whether school districts or cities – for resources. Of course the scheme has not been studied in its actual practice yet so we don’t know what actual difference (or lack of difference) it would make to any pupil in the way that we do for Menichelli’s case-study cities, where CCTV is described as being almost entirely useless because it was never really intended to be used as anything other than a way of winning resources. However it would seem that the ‘surveillance’ is almost entirely secondary or perhaps even irrelevent. However I certainly do not dismiss the possibility that nefarious or even unintentionally damaging things could be done with the location data gathered from the chip cards.