by yung au
The word “biometrics” is derived from the Greek words of [βιο] (life) and [μετρικός] (to measure). So, how have we been measuring something as varied as “life” — and how will we continue to do so in the years to come?
Biometric recognition technologies are “systems that ‘fix’ official identities to bodily, physiological, or behavioural traits, providing new ways for individuals to identify themselves, and also to be identified or tracked.”¹
Biometrics have been used throughout history in order to identify “familiar” and “unfamiliar” individuals. As surveillance technologies and their related industries grow, our deconstructed bodies are increasingly being registered. We are a composite of our retinas, facial geometries, gaits, signatures, voices, DNA, fingerprints, footprints, saliva, keystrokes, as well as the spaces between our eyes, nose, and lips.
Biometrics, then, is a site where bodies and technologies merge. However, as fleshy interfaces, some of us register more accurately than others. For instance, the first time a person registers on a biometric system is called enrolment. The failure to enrol rate (FTE) is the percentage of the population that fails to complete enrolment for a biometric application. So, who fails? Who is unrecognised? Whose identities are not found?
Current identification models are often trained on limited datasets that do not represent the spectrum of society. Our biometric systems are crafted with a narrow set of people in mind. These models, furthermore, operate under an illusion that their practices are objective and seamless. “Errors” start to emerge when an individual deviates from the prototypical bodies on which these systems are founded and standardized.
As automated biometric systems are increasingly embedded in smart phones, smart borders, and smart cities, how are these failures also cascading? Who has access to spaces and services that are guarded by electronic gatekeepers that identify some, but not others? Who is denied access to their phones, to their welfare checks, to hospitals, to a vote, or to border crossings?
Identity documents — low or high tech — have always fragmented individuals into bodies and their composites in order to read, organise, and deal with bodily complexity.² A corpus of evidence grows by the day on how biometrical sorting deepens pre-existing socio-economic, racial, caste, gender, and other intersectional rifts, yet the rapid adoption of these systems continues.³
As machines and their human operators continue to privilege the prototypical and stutter on the atypical, will we merely approach each model with a question of calibration? Or, will we recognise the need to confront the systems that created such persistent exclusions in the first place?
Will we be content in our attempts to fit into “biometric ideals”⁴ —
imaginaries that best serve the body that is:
free of perspiration,
and never aging a day.
¹ A. Kak, “‘Regulating Biometrics: Global Approaches and Urgent Questions,’” AI
Now Institute, 2020.
² S. Browne, “Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics,” Critical
Sociology, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 131–150, Jan. 2010; S. Browne, Dark matters: On
the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.
³ A. Kak 2020; U. Rao, “Biometric Bodies, Or How to Make Electronic Fingerprinting
Work in India,” Body & Society, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 68–94, Sep. 2018.
⁴ U. Rao 2018; P. M. Frowd, “The Promises and Pitfalls of Biometric Security Practices
in Senegal,” International Political Sociology, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 343–359, Dec. 2017;
J. Buolamwini and T. Gebru, “Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities
in Commercial Gender Classification,” in Conference on Fairness, Accountability
and Transparency, Jan. 2018, pp. 77–91; B. Ajana, “Biometric citizenship,”
Citizenship Studies, vol. 16, no. 7, pp. 851–870, Oct. 2012.
Yung Au is a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, where she is a Clarendon and Rotary Scholar. Her work examines the infrastructures and underbellies of technologies, particularly how intelligent systems and data pipelines are intricately intertwined with power, control, and surveillance. She is also a researcher at the Project for Democracy and Technology as well as the Oxford Commission on AI & Good Governance.