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.

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.”

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. 

Race, Public Health, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement


The anti-vaccination movement, driven by fallacious claims that routine vaccinations can cause autism in children, is under renewed fire as a new outbreak of measles hits California, the epicenter of both the current outbreak and the “anti-vaxxer” movement.

Here, David Shih argues that the anti-vaccination movement should be read through the lens of race, white privilege, and the historical pathologization of blackness:

“Blackness has long been perceived as a public health threat, as the recent hysteria over Ebola has demonstrated. I believe that whiteness–not white people in and of themselves, to be clear–as defined by Harris, the settled expectations of white privilege as protected by law, is contributing to a new public health threat. A productive way to understand whiteness as property is to try to think of ways that black Americans’ settled expectations for life, liberty, and happiness are not codified in the law. Whose expectations are served by policies such as “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk”? Or by the Bloomington city attorney bringing charges against Mall of America protesters? If the measles and whooping cough outbreaks get massive media attention partly because of their potential impact on white communities (compared to the Ebola virus before it crossed the Atlantic), then we might also investigate whiteness as part of the cause, a call to research that I hope this blog will sound. Whiteness as property is only one way to imagine the intersection of race with class when considering how power animates public health emergencies such as the measles outbreak.”

Read Shih’s piece in full here.