Commonplace · vol. 5 · no. 1 · October 2004

Christopher Lukasik
The Physiognomy of Biometrics
The face of counterterrorism

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


With the Wall Street Journal calling facial recognition technology "one of the most error-prone types of biometric devices available today" on the one hand, and the ACLU branding it "an over-hyped failure" on the other, how can the government’s continued appetite for biometrics and the public’s apparent indifference to its costs and problems be explained? "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion," the Economist told its readers, "that the chief motivation for deploying biometrics is not so much to provide security, but to provide the appearance of security." Yet, poll after poll reveals that a majority of Americans believe that biometric screening will increase security. Why do so many find an illusion sufficient for security?

On the one hand, biometrics desires a history, but on the other, it suppresses its own relationship to prejudicial scientific discourses such as physiognomy, phrenology, anthropology, Bertillonage, and eugenics and their histories of generating and naturalizing social types complicit with racism, discrimination, and social injustice.

Without debating the strategic merits of the deterrent value of biometrics in a post-9/11 world, the confidence displayed in biometric technologies might have something to do with how they recall familiar but ultimately unproven ideas about the body’s permanence and its capacity to communicate our essential moral character or our unique identity. Biometrics posits that there are unique, measurable, and permanent physical features, which is why this science—like physiognomy before it—has difficulty with the simple fact that people change. Aging, weight gain or loss, changes in hairstyle, illness, accident, and cosmetic surgery have all been found to alter presumably permanent biometric characteristics. "Biometric input is not always the same and the technology has difficulty adapting to input variations," admits Valorie Valencia, CEO of the biometric firm Authenticorp. In fact, the problem of user change is significant enough that the euphemistically labeled "time decay" of each kind of biometric is now part of a $3.1 million NSF/DHS study. By insisting that there are permanent features of the face, biometrics reproduce the physiognomic fallacy: namely, that there is an opposition between a voluntary, revisable self knowable from behavior and an involuntary, permanent self knowable from the body. Moreover, just as physiognomy was imagined by postrevolutionary novelists such as Rowson to thwart the rapid social mobility of fortune-hunting seducers, biometrics imagine the permanence associated with the corporeal self as an instrument for identifying people and regulating their mobility.

The disavowal of the physiognomic fallacy by the biometric industry perhaps can be most strongly felt in how it chooses the future rather than the past in order to confront questions about the social consequences of its technology. In general, the industry and the media covering it address the social effects of biometrics as they are imagined in blockbuster Hollywood films such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity, or Enemy of the State. (Industry experts served as technical consultants to many of these films.) At last year’s Biometric Consortium Conference, for instance, Catherine Tilton blamed Hollywood depictions of biometrics for perpetuating a series of myths regarding the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom, constant surveillance, absurd costs, and inaccuracy of biometrics. Chris Winton of Biometrics Australia lodged a similar complaint this year to the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that "biometrics is suffering from bad PR as a result of Hollywood."

Illustration from Johann Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy: For the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind (Boston, 1794). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

By pointing to Hollywood dramatizations of biometrics as the origin of "myths" regarding the technology’s violation of privacy and freedom, the industry denies the actual, relevant histories of identity and corporeality that have existed in the United States and elsewhere since at least the era of physiognomy. It puts biometrics in dialogue with futuristic fantasies—at times paranoid, at other times, accurate—about its imagined social effects rather than with actual past histories of the social, cultural, and political consequences of identifying people by their bodies. When the past is invoked by biometrics, its official genealogy is a progressive, scientific one beginning in the late nineteenth century with the early biometric criminologists, Alphonse Bertillon (inventor of a body measurement system for identifying criminals) and Francis Galton (father of fingerprinting), and evolving to the technologically savvy and precise biometrics of today. On the one hand, biometrics desires a history, but on the other, it suppresses its own relationship to prejudicial scientific discourses such as physiognomy, phrenology, anthropology, Bertillonage, and eugenics and their histories of generating and naturalizing social types complicit with racism, discrimination, and social injustice.

These histories seem particularly important to consider given the nontechnological aspects of biometrics. The question of how to identify a terrorist without a picture of his face, for instance, remains unanswered by biometrics, and the mysterious notion of a "watchlist" only defers the issue to government intelligence. How the watchlist is constructed, who is on it, and for how long, are rarely addressed in the debate over biometrics. When asked if he knew, Raj Nanavati of the International Biometric Group told Newsweek, "I’m not sure myself . . . they’re comparing it against a watchlist of nondesirables." While biometric boosters like Identix CEO Joseph Atick assure the public that "trusted identity . . . is not a class distinction," his own description of how his company’s facial recognition system will be able to discern the untrustworthy few from the "trusted identity" of "the honest majority" sounds all too similar to the invisible rambler’s magical declaration to "find my real friends, and detect my enemies."

Further Reading:

The emerging field of biometrics has produced a large number of short, mostly informative Web, newspaper, and periodical sources, but only a few book-length examinations. For more information on biometrics, see Joseph Atick, "Biometric Consortium Keynote Speech," Biometric Consortium, Washington D.C., Feb. 2002; Ruud M. Bolle, Anil Jain, and Sharath Pankanti, "Biometrics: The Future of Identification," Computer 33:2 (Feb.2000): 46-49; Owen Bowcott, "Biometrics Helping the Fight Against Terror, Hindering the Hope for Privacy," Guardian, 18 June 2004, 3; David P. Hamilton, "Workplace Security (A Special Report); Read My Lips: Are Biometric Systems The Security Solution of the Future? Maybe, But We’re Not There Yet," Wall Street Journal, 29 Sept. 2003, R4; Anil Jain, Sharath Pankanti, and Sailil Prabihakar, "Biometric Recognition: Security and Privacy Concerns," IEEE Security and Privacy, 1:2 (March/April 2003): 33-42; The Nine-Eleven Commission Report, Washington D.C., 2004; Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America: From Slavery to the War on Terror (New York, 2003); Jeffrey Rosen, The Naked Crowd (New York, 2004); Irma Van der Ploeg, "The Illegal Body: ‘Eurodac’ and the Politics of Biometric Identification," Ethics and Information Technology 1 (1999): 295-302; and James Wayman, "Interview with Joe Palca," Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, 11 June 2004. For more on physiognomy at the end of the eighteenth century, see Johann Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy, trans. by Henry Hunter, with engravings by Thomas Holloway, 3 vols. in 5 (London, 1789-98); Johann Caspar Lavater, The Pocket Lavater or, The Science of Physiognomy (New York, 1817); and Susanna Rowson, The Inquisitor, or Invisible Rambler (1788; Philadelphia, 1793).

previous this issue home