Biometric Policing: More Local Police Using Facial Recognition Software

A recent New York Times article details the frighteningly pervasive application of facial recognition softwares, originally developed for overseas military use, to local police departments across the country. Because the application of the technology to domestic police forces is rather recent, there are no clear guidelines or restrictions on its use. Timothy Williams reports:

“The software can identify 16,000 points on a person’s face – to determine the distance between the eyes or the shape of the lips, for instance – and compare them with thousands of similar points in police booking or other photos at a rate of more than one million faces a second.”

Despite public reservations about police misconduct, “the F.B.I. is pushing ahead with its $1 billion Next Generation Identification program, in which the agency will gather data like fingerprints, iris scans and photographs, as well as information collected through facial recognition software. That software is capable of analyzing driver’s license photos and images from the tens of thousands of surveillance cameras around the country. The F.B.I. system will eventually be made accessible to more than 18,000 local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies,” the article reports.

“But people who are not criminal suspects are included in the database, and the error rate for the software is as high as 20  – meaning the authorities could misidentify millions of people.”

Such cutting edge technologies that merge biometric measurements with the power of big data draw on a long history. As early as 1879, French police officer and researcher Alphonse Bertillon devised a series of standardized measurements through which criminal suspects could be identified. Introduced in the US in 1887, Bertillon System would gain widespread acceptance until it was supplanted by fingerprinting as a primary means of law enforcement identification.

Bertillon poster of physical features Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police
Bertillon poster of physical features
Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police

Bertillon’s reliance on facial measurements was contemporaneous with the popularization of phrenology and later eugenics, which used similar measurement techniques to attempt to distinguish superior and inferior biological “races”. How might the racial application of such measurements have distorted its use by law enforcement? How might contemporary issues of racism in policing be impacted by the use of new biometric technologies?

Bertillon card 20472, November 21, 1908 New York City Municipal Archives
Bertillon card 20472, November 21, 1908
New York City Municipal Archives

Gene Editing, Designer Babies, and “The New Eugenics”

Last month, a group of Chinese scientists published a research paper in the journal Protein and Cell that rocked the science and bioethics community. The research reported on experiments involving DNA editing of a human embryo – a first for the international scientific community.

The research, conducted on non-viable embryos, attempted to replace certain genes that cause an often fatal blood disorder. Nick Stockton of explained:

“The technique Huang and his co-investigators used, CRISPR/Cas9, allows researchers to snip out and insert specific segments of genetic code. Discovered in 2012, the technique is the subject of a lot of excitement and trepidation in the cell sciences (and its investors are already being suggested as candidates for a Nobel Prize). Relative to other gene editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is easy to use, and it seems to work in just about every living organism. That means it could, among other possibilities, hold the key to personalized medical therapies, new drugs, and (as the Chinese scientists attempted) human genetic modification.”

Beyond technical concerns about the unknown short and long-term consequences of gene editing in humans, the news has raised profound questions about the ethics of gene editing, with many blocs of scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryonic DNA editing. Wired quoted George Q. Daley, stem cell biologist, who wrote:

“There are two issues: One is trying to understand at a deeper scientific level whether such an approach can be made safely. The second would be the broader and deeper ethical considerations of editing our heredity. I feel very significant concerns about using a new technology to do something as bold as changing someone’s germ line – not just for that individual, but for all of the offspring [emphasis added].”

While there has been much debate about the ethics of “designer babies,”* primarily accomplished through the artificial sorting and selection of sperm, actual DNA manipulation raises similar, if more pronounced, questions about scientists’ ability to “play god,” and how the use of such technologies in practice may reinforce hierarchies of power based on access, class, race, disability, and nationality.


*See the documentary Designer Babies: The New Eugenics (2010) which examines both the ethical implications and practical application of “designing babies.”   

Fit for Citizenship? A Photo Essay



In the latest issue of Dissent Magazine, Michelle Chen explores how eugenics thought shaped American immigration policy in the 1920s and beyond.

“Eugenics did not invent whiteness. Well before they intersected with evolutionary theory, ideas of race and racism had been central to colonialism and slavery and had been used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples. But eugenics built on earlier philosophies of human nature by tying genetics and racial identity to notions of modernity and progress. Linking hereditary traits to intelligence or temperament helped reconcile the ideal of democracy—a principle theoretically based on inclusion and equality—with a culture that dehumanized the Other. This rationalization of privilege aimed to keep the economic hierarchy humming, enforce the illusion of meritocracy, and simultaneously curb the social mobility of supposedly inferior groups.”

Read the piece in full here.

Disability, Sexuality, and Stigma

Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.

“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”

Sofie Middernacht and Maarten Alexander/Mosaic, via The Atlantic

Read Quarmby’s article in full. 

See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens. 

Photos from “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics

We’re happy to share professional documentation of  “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics, a public installation that was on view at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery from October 31, 2014 through January , 2015. The installation drew from public displays and propaganda of the American eugenics movement, which distilled the “objective” research of institutions like the Eugenics Record Office into visceral imagery and familiar racial, gendered, and ableist stereotypes.

Click the image below to see images from the installation. Image credits: GION Studio.

1 - Measure Difference

Eugenics’ Critics: Another Sort of ‘Defective’

Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler.  (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.

Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.

It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?


Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.11.57 AM


Full text:

WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.

It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.

Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”

The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…

But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?

A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.


Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?


Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!

On Gatsby‘s “Mysterious” non-Nordic Origins

You may have seen our references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby popping up throughout our Haunted Files written materials. So far, we’ve had a number of visitors ask us what Gatsby has to do with American eugenics history. Most apparent is Tom Buchanan’s eugenics-inspired tirade about civilization “going to pieces,” and his allusion to Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely popular eugenics text, The Rising Tide of Color (Fitzgerald, 17). But the entire subtext of Fitzgerald’s archetypal “great American novel” is a narrative of attempted, and ultimately failed, assimilation and passing in eugenics-era America. Constant allusions to Gatsby’s mysterious origins imply non-WASP, perhaps Jewish, heritage. Gatsby’s ambiguous claims to “whiteness” are called into question by the nativist Buchanan, who likens Gatsby’s affair with Daisy to miscegenation (137). Read this way, The Great Gatsby asks: can wealth, clothes, and social status grant Gatsby access to an increasingly exclusive Nordic American identity? Eugenics’ answer, offered via Buchanan, is a resounding “no”.

Buchanan embodies WASP nativist fears of the eugenics era.

Read more about the critical intersections of race, sexuality, and class in The Great Gatsby:

[via ProQuest] Goldsmith, Meredith. “White Skin, White Mask: Passing, Posing, and Performing in The Great Gatsby.” Modern Fiction Studies, Fall 2003. 

Forter, Greg. “Gender, melancholy, and the whiteness of impersonal form.” Gender, race, and mourning in American Modernism.

Modern Eugenics, Sterilization, and the Anti-Immigrant Movement

“If America is to escape the doom of nations generally, it must breed good Americans.”

Harry H. Laughlin (1914), Eugenics Record Office superintendent,”expert” advisor on the
1924 Immigration Restriction Act and architect of the widely adopted “model eugenic sterilization law.”

“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

John Tanton (December, 1993), founder, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)

A 2013 report from the Center for New Community traces the disturbingly direct ties between hardline eugenicists of the pre-WWII era and contemporary anti-immigrant organizations and sterilization/”population control” campaigns.

As the report explains, in 1937 ERO superintendent Harry H. Laughlin helped Wickliffe Draper found the Pioneer Fund, dedicated to “fund the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” Today, the Fund is alive and well, having funded the bulk of the research cited in Murray and Herrnstein’s infamous book The Bell Curve (1994), and more recently pouring money into John Tanton’s Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the fierce anti-immigration group behind Arizona SB 1070, a bill authorizing police to demand papers proving immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country unlawfully. Meanwhile, Tanton has been behind the promotion and proliferation of Quinacrine, a “permanent birth control” method that advocates have pushed into the developing world, administering the drug to often under-informed or misled women in the name of “population control”.

Quinacrine Report
Read the report in full.

Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Jennifer D. Miglus, Librarian, Hartford Medical Society Historical Library
On the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, housed in the Hartford Medical Society Historical Library, Farmington, CT

*All images are reproduced with permission from the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene. 

“Society of Social Hygiene Organized – Aim is to limit spread of social disease.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, May 14, 1910

“Conn. Hygiene Assn. Finishes its Work – Members to vote on discontinuance at tonight’s meeting.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, November 10, 1921

Pamphlet describing the functions of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.


These headlines bracket the eleven year existence of a group of industrious and socially-minded citizens in Hartford, CT.  Initially, the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene rose in prominence as it worked to ‘limit the spread of social disease.’  This was accomplished specifically through sexual education and promotion of the sanctity of the home, and through public health education on the spread of venereal disease.  These efforts were supported by private donations.

This was the benign face of the Society.  The other face was more troubling.  The minutes of the executive committee meeting of January 18, 1913 read as follows:

“Meeting was called to order by the Chairman, Dr. Carmalt, and the bills concerning rape and the sterilization of degenerates prepared by the Legislative Committee were presented by Dean Rogers.  The first bill was the one concerning the sterilization of defectives. . . A Board of Examiners of feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives is hereby created . . . It shall be the duty of the said Board to examine into the mental and physical condition and the record and family history so far as available, of the feeble-minded, epileptic, criminal and other defective inmates confined in the several State hospitals for the insane, the State Prison, and the reformatory, and in any charitable or penal institution maintained by the State, and if in the judgment of the majority of said Board, procreation by any such person would produce children with an inherited tendency to crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy or imbecility, and there is no probability that the condition of any such person so examined will improve . . . then said Board shall report in writing their finding to any judge of the Superior Court with their recommendation that an operation for the prevention of procreation be performed upon such person . . .”

Promotional postcard for the play “Damaged Goods” performed under the auspices of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.

For several years the Society published pamphlets, hosted topical plays and gave lectures throughout the state, but they lost traction during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918.  In 1920 they reincorporated as the Connecticut Social Hygiene Association, Inc., a branch of the American Social Hygiene Association.  The CT Association closed its doors in November of 1921 due to a lack of funds.

A crucial question is how a group of people, assembled to do good, can find themselves involved in what most of us would call evil. How was it that upright citizens who wanted to give women power over childbearing decisions and protect both men and women from venereal disease could also espouse involuntary sterilization of people deemed ‘unfit’ by a Board of Examiners?  Partly it was the relatively new discovery of genetics and the dawning, but still relatively simplistic, awareness of how traits are inherited.  Partly, it was a lingering 19th century sensibility that people deemed deficient or undesirable should be hidden away.  The proposition that a given “race” be purified and raised to dominance while others were suppressed was a leap further still.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 11.27.15 AM
Poster issued by the American Social Hygiene Association and used by the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1914.

Eugenics was popular in many countries at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was only when Nazi Germany practiced it in its most extreme form that eugenics fell out of favor.  Laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained on the books in some states as late as 1974.

The values of health and reproductive choice segued very easily into control over those considered undesirable and their involuntary sterilization.  Could such a perversion of values happen again?  It seems unlikely, but this historical precedent would have us keep our eyes, and hearts, open.

-Jennifer Miglus

The Positive Work of “Positive Exposure”

Positive Exposure

“Positive Exposure utilizes photography and video to transform public perceptions of people living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences – from albinism to autism.  Our educational and advocacy programs reach around the globe to promote a more inclusive, compassionate world where differences are celebrated.

The statistics to support our work are staggering. With one out of five children  in the United States being born with a disability, the need for society to understand and respect children and adults living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences is critical.”

Check out more of photographer Rick Guidotti’s work on Positive Exposure’s website and watch his TED Talk below.

Image Credit: Rick Guidotti for Positive Exposure