Does History Repeat? The Frontier of Biometric Surveillance

The expanding use of biometric technologies (facial recognition, fingerprinting, DNA recognition, palm vein pattern recognition…) by government and law enforcement agencies poses new questions at the intersections of ethics, technology, policing, and surveillance. Far from some imagined future police state, the real-world applications are taking place here and now. Dubai police are equipped with Google Glass with facial recognition software to help track down suspects. Meanwhile, the F.B.I. is rolling out a $1.2 billion “Next Generation Identification” system, equipping 62 police departments with handheld iris and facial recognition devices.

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Zach Blas models one of his masks, which prevents facial recognition softwares from recognizing the wearer.

 

Enter artist Zach Blas, who has designed a series of aesthetically captivating masks that serve the practical purpose of shielding subjects from potential facial recognition technology, while making a poignant political statement against unethical government policing and surveillance.

Here, GOOD speaks with Blas about his work and the implications of these emerging technologies. 

“I think one of the things that you’re seeing, when you ask about the potential ramifications of this, is you’re seeing a really odd return to pseudo-scientific endeavors of the 19th century.

Things like anthropometry, physiognomy, phrenology, methods that were popularized by Alphonse Bertillon, Cesare Lombroso, Francis Galton, certain criminologists who would measure criminal skulls to say, “Here’s what the average criminal skull looks like.”

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Blas compares contemporary faith in the “objectivity” of biometrics to 19th and 20th century interest in phrenology and criminology, fields running alongside eugenics that were similarly seen as “cutting edge” by many at the time.

You’re seeing a really weird history-repeating-itself moment with things like that coming back, but of course they’re executed under the guise of high-tech biometrics, so they’re not as questioned because there’s this high-tech sheen to these technologies that I think a lot of people believe are utterly scientifically objective. I think that’s one of the central problems, that biometrics propagate a certain way of understanding identity where you can scan the surface of the body digitally, fully quantify it, and gain some kind of core truth about a person. And you now see that permeating in a lot of different ways.”

Read the interview in full here. 

The Ebola Scare: How Medicine, Disease, and Bias Meet at Borders

The Ebola Scare: How Medicine, Disease, and Bias Meet at Borders

In his 1912 book The Nam Family, a study of a “highly inbred” family of “degenerates” in New York State, Eugenics Record Office Director Charles B. Davenport implored readers to understand that “a breeding pot of uncontrolled animalism is as much of a menace to our civilization” as “ten cases of bubonic plague at a point not 200 miles away.”

Over a century later, in the midst of a largely unwarranted Western Ebola hysteria, right-wing politician Scott Brown claimed that the US’ “unprotected border” would allow “people with Ebola and other infectious diseases [to] enter the country without being challenged.”

The two incidents are part of a long American history in which ethnic, cultural, and sexual difference have conjured images of disease, filth, poverty, and degeneracy. Longstanding public perceptions associated different immigrant groups with different diseases: the Irish with cholera; the Jews with tuberculosis; the Italians with polio; the Chinese with Bubonic plague. Public policy would draw from popular biases: the Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry of all immigrant “idiots,” insane,” and sufferers “from a loathsome or dangerous” contagious disease. Eugenic conceptions of mental difference expanded the excludable classes to include “all aliens afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeblemindedness,” and beyond.

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From the “Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens,” published by the US Public Health Service, 1912.

Eugenics rhetoric of “tainted,” “impure,” and “degenerate” individuals grafted familiar fears of infectious disease onto fears of inheritable mental and behavioral difference, differences of course associated with all non-“Nordic” populations.

The Ebola scare and its media depictions continue the tradition of embedding ethnic and cultural biases into narratives of disease. Writes Stassa Edwards for Jezebel:

African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.

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The threat of infectious disease requires a level-headed scientific and medical response. But history has shown that too often, science and medicine can be warped by popular biases to support ethnocentric, supremacist ideas of national belonging, “foreignness,” and the preservation of an exclusive sort of American identity.


 

Read More:

Paranoia on the Border: Immigration and Public Health,” Adam Turner.

Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-mindedness in the American Eugenic Era, Gerald V. O’brien.

Science at the Borders, Amy L. Fairchild.

Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace, Alan M. Kraut.

How ableism justifies wrongful birth lawsuits

There’s been a recent uproar since news broke that a white Ohio woman and her partner initiated a “wrongful birth” lawsuit against a Chicago sperm bank after discovering (post-birth) that her sperm donor was a black man.

The incident has shed light on the prevalence of racial bias in contemporary America. But it also raises the question: where is the public outcry when wrongful birth claims are made by parents of children with disabilities?

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 3.56.43 PMKi’tay Davidson writes for Black Girl Dangerous on how ableism justifies the screening, and often times, abortion, of fetuses showing signs of disabilities:

“Too often, people feel wrongful birth lawsuits are justified due to the financial burden of raising a disabled child. How about reforming healthcare, education, housing, etc. to eradicate institutional ableism that creates these financial hardships? 90 percent of fetuses testing positive for Down Syndrome will be aborted in the U.S. Eugenics cannot be our answer to ableism; advancing disability rights and justice should be.”

Read it in full here.