October 2021: Biometrics and the forming of nations
This month, Frontex is due to hold its third international conference on the use of biometrics for borders (by invitation only). The EU organisation has focused its attention on increasing ‘interoperability’, a term which refers to the ability to share data and process information seamlessly across systems, from policing to visas to asylum. This is held up positively in the progression of “information sharing leading to a more effective collaboration”. We continue to draw attention to the colonial logic of these technological systems, and their influence on notions of ‘nation-building’.
The ‘collaborative’ ‘sharing’ of biometric data is supported, by the EU or US, until it falls into the ‘wrong’ hands. In the aftermath of the US exit from Afghanistan, concerns have been raised about the security of biometric data gathered from Afghans by the US military, revealing the ineffectiveness of absolute protection of data through time and geographies, and across political interests. A number of reports came out highlighting the dangers of unprotected data being taken over by the Taliban. The Intercept focused on the use of HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment) devices, used by the US since around 2010. Handheld HIIDE devices store biometric data within them – up to 22,000 profiles per device – of iris, fingerprint and facial images. There is uncertainty about whether the physical objects left behind are able to be cleared of the data at a distance.
In their article in MIT Technology Review, Guo and Noori look to the broader issue of database sharing in which information is often permanently held. They mention a conference on biometrics in Kabul, organised by the US military in 2010. At this meeting, the implementation of biometrics was promoted by the US in order to ‘help’ Afghanistan in a threefold way: to “understand who its citizens are”, “control its borders” and have “identity dominance” ie. identify terrorists and insurgents. Ultimately, “biometrics supports a national identity by facilitating border control for Afghanistan as a sovereign nation through the identification of its citizens and lawful visitors”. This sentence reveals the belief in the role of biometrics in the service of order, efficiency and security, and the inextricability of these aims in the production and consolidation of imagined national identities, projected onto the nation-building project in Afghanistan; here, to employ biometrics is part of the process of legitimation of the nation.
While the focus has been on how the Taliban could use this data, we could also speculate about how the EU would instrumentalise such information. The Union preempted the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, ensuring that ‘high-tech’ surveillance was in place to prevent the small percentage of migrants arriving in Europe.
Last year, during the event we organised at Het Nieuwe Instituut, ‘Technologising the EU Border’, Ariana Dongus presented her research into the use of Iris Scan Guard in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. She relates the development of ‘high-tech’ companies to an economy that benefits from the displacement of people caused by conflict, what she terms ‘biometric capitalism’. Specifically, she explores how biometrics continue colonial experimentation on distant others, and ultimately are sites of capital accumulation through data. We also recommend reading her piece Galton’s Utopia – Data Accumulation in Biometric Capitalism in which she further contextualises biometric capitalism through the practice of fingerprinting.