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Run your fingers through the bureaucracy

Biometric technology is making inroads into Australia, writes Mariana Podesta-Diverio.

The use of biometrics, a branch of information technology that deals with the collection and analysis of biological human information such as face scans, DNA and fingerprints for the purposes of identification and control, has been steadily increasing since the beginning of the 20th century.

Some readers may be familiar with this technology from laptop finger scanners, vocal identification technology, or recent smartphones that use fingerprinting instead of passcodes to allow access. Many of you will have dealt with the biometric voice identification software used by Centrelink for over-the-phone income reporting and customer identification, which the department began to roll out in 2009. Those of you who haven’t yet come into contact with this technology will have the chance to do so very soon. In May of this year, it was announced that more Australian financial institutions are considering using biometrics for customer identification. NAB began to use voice recognition in 2009, and ANZ is currently looking into rolling out the technology.

There are countries where the mass collection and storage of biometrically obtained information is the norm. The Uruguayan government, for example, has a digital collection of my fingerprints. This is a necessary step in the acquisition of a citizen’s ID card that is mandatory for all residents, and optional for citizens living abroad. The index fingerprint is also displayed prominently on the identity card. Followers of world news will remember that Uruguay was the first country to legalise medical marijuana last year. Those who purchase marijuana in Uruguayan pharmacies do so with the use of their fingerprint, which is used by the government as a means of controlling and tracking how much of the drug customers are purchasing. The legalisation of marijuana and its commercial distribution has been facilitated by the previously established system of fingerprint collection.

India has the most developed system of biometric data collection of any country, as a result of a program called Aadhaar, which is being developed as a means for building a database for the universal identification of Indian people. In a report for the Centre for Global Development in 2012, researchers state that 200 million Indians had at that point enrolled for the service. In contrast to Uruguay’s government-controlled system, the information collected by Aadhaar will be available for public and private sector use. The argument for this universal identity program is that countries with large populations, such as India, need strong systems of identification for social and economic development.

There has been a steadfast growth in the introduction of biometrics systems, particularly finger scanners, in Australian workplaces as a way to monitor shift times and breaks. The highly individualised nature of biometrical information, as opposed to the easily forged information from signatures or swipe cards of yore, means that finger scanners grant employers access to information regarding employees’ movements in a way that was never before possible.

Dr Charlotte Epstein, Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at USyd, said that the use of biometrics is becoming increasingly normalised. Epstein highlighted the connection between the biometrics industry and social media, citing Facebook’s face recognition software, to facilitate photo tagging, as a prime example.

“The key thing to know about certain biometrics is that the iris, for example, can contain really private genetic information,” said Epstein. “People are giving up private information about their bodies.”

Epstein said that biometrics enable an intimate access to one’s personal information – a surveillance that is applied to the body. The use of these technologies is, in the neoliberal context, “sold in terms of an efficiency logic,” she said. “Particularly in places like airports, to make processes faster.”

On a more local note, the University of Sydney Union (USU), has begun to implement the software for biometric technology in some of its workplaces. The USU will be using a fingerprint scanning system that will “accurately record employee time and attendance” among other things.

Like other fingerprint scanners on the market, the system used by the USU will not store an image of the fingerprint in any form. Instead, a template is generated from the fingerprint reading via an algorithm. This template is then compared to existing templates that correspond to an employee in order to verify identity. This is a one-way conversion process, meaning that once the template is generated to match an existing template pertaining to an employee, there is no way to reverse this process and recreate the original fingerprint.

If that doesn’t make sense, think of it this way: you need to use flour, water and oil to make a loaf of bread, but once the loaf is baked, there’s no way you can make it raw again and extract those ingredients. There are downfalls to every technological innovation, and biometrics is no exception. In a 2004 document, the Victorian Law Reform Commission reported that five per cent of the population cannot use finger-scanning tools, as their fingerprints are either worn down from labour or “genetically indistinct”. This poses a roadblock to the universal application of biometrical data collection systems that draw significantly from fingerprinting as a source of information. This incongruence in the data (what we might also call ‘human error’, in its most forgivable incarnation) could lead to skewed biostatistics.

The acquisition of this information helps develop knowledge in a way utterly unique to current technologies. It enables the systematic categorisation of individuals by any number of factors, such as age, residency status, address, gender – the list goes on. Michel Foucault who, before his death thirty years ago, wrote extensively about surveillance, governance and their implications for the control of human bodies, would have an aneurysm if he were alive to see the recent developments and applications of biometrical systems.

In Australia, we haven’t yet reached the stage where our every movement, disease, and purchase is monitored, but as finance and technology develops, we move steadily closer to that reality. Biometrics is no longer a thing of distant future, resigned to sci-fi films and cyberpunk novels. In the very near future, we will have much more to worry about than Facebook storing our old status updates and ridiculous photos. We’ll soon face the prospect of having every one of our movements electronically stored and perhaps even used as a tool for control.