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Biometric Borders

Benjamin J. Muller is Associate Professor of Political Science, King’s University College at Western University, London, Canada.

Our interview is based on his forthcoming “Biometric Borders” paper, part of Handbook on Critical Geographies of Migration, edited by Katharyne Mitchell, Reece Jones and Jennifer Fluri, Edward Elgar Press (publication scheduled for February 2019).

Christophe Bruchansky: In the “Biometric Borders” paper, you describe how the use of biometrics in border security (rein)forces the rituals and performances of state identity. You give the example of borderland communities that are torn apart by the “near obsessive fetish with technologies of surveillances”. Could biometrics not instead promote borderland identities by making border security “invisible”?

Benjamin J. Muller: The use of biometrics and surveillance technologies certainly make the securitization of the border less materially obvious. RFID enabled trusted traveler cards, for example, can allow one to barely stop at ports of entry, participating in an almost seamless flow across borders. However, there are a few dangers associated with these techniques, in so far as they conceal some more serious exercises of state power, and a continued reliance on biopolitical sorting of populations by categories of class, race and gender. First, the reliance on identification and surveillance technologies, particularly in practice, rely on more centrally (meaning federally) controlled and managed schemes, such as the NEXUS program between Canada and the US. As a result, the risk assessment, file review, risk profiling, and so on, is centrally managed. Therefore, these functions are not in the hands of local authorities (in the borderlands), nor are they subject to the specific notions of identity and security that are prevalent in the borderlands, and are often distinctly different from the perspectives of federal agencies. Second, the reliance on identification and surveillance technologies play a mutually constitutive role in the transformation of the management of borders and mobility from one focused on customs and excise (examination), to security and law enforcement (surveillance). While the changes may be concealed, the securitization and even militarization of the border is amplified. And third, the use of surveillance and identification technologies enhance the state’s capacity for social sorting, categorizing along the lines of potential risk according to race, gender, and class. While less obvious than non-technological means, this social sorting can have devastating effect, noted in cases such as the Maher Arar incident in Canada.

Christophe: Another potential consequence of biometric borders is travellers’ discrimination based on pre-assumed categories of risk, without any control or visibility of identities imposed upon them, not only at physical borders but inside national frontiers through ubiquitous biometric authentications. In the current climate of fear of terrorism and illegal migration, what group or institution would be best placed to raise this issue? And at what stage do you believe the general public will take notice?

BJM: The fact that I agree with the premise of the statement is already obvious from my answer to the previous question. Therefore, I will focus specifically on the question about what group or institution would be best placed to raise the issue of risk assessment and social sorting (and the related undermining of privacy rights). First, it is essential that government agencies take serious the role of citizens and their consent and support for border security measures. It is clear in liberal democracies and many other less democratic regimes, that if unjust practices are exercised without recourse on some members of society (travelers, asylum seekers, etc.) or in specific spaces (borderlands, ports of entry, airports), then justice, equality and the capacity of citizens to hold sovereign power accountable is in jeopardy as a whole. In other words, if you allow sovereign exceptional power to be exercised in one space, don’t expect that (ab)use of power to remain there. I raise this because it is essential that citizens are the first part of this discussion. Borders and borderlands, particularly in states such as Canada, where the majority of the population reside, are essential parts of the state and its performance of power. There is deep skepticism about the efficacy and alleged necessity of these security measures vis-à-vis surveillance and biometrics, and as a result, citizens must be brought into the conversation, rather than excluded through the argument that as a core security function it is the sole prerogative of the exceptional sovereign power. In some national contexts, such as Canada, there are existing institutions for oversight, namely the provincial and federal privacy commissioners. Privacy commissions should have a more central role to play in the management of borders and borderlands, and move towards more comprehensive and harmonized legislation about privacy and data protection that is not solely about the operations of political parties and personal data on social media platforms, but also and explicitly in the contemporary management of borders and mobility.

Christophe: Realistically, biometric borders are here to stay. They will, for the better or worse, expand and get more sophisticated. Do you believe it is possible to develop ethical biometric borders? What would need to be put in place to conciliate national security, sense of identity and personal freedoms?

BJM: I would agree that biometrics borders are here to stay. As the erstwhile Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration said more than a decade ago, the biometrics train has left the station. However, the consent of citizens, some robust notion of data protection and privacy, and a clear role for agencies such as privacy commissioners as a form of oversight must be a central part of the conversation. Citizens are justifiably skeptical and concerned about the increasing reliance on biometrics, and the extent to which information is shared with other national law enforcement agencies. This fact would suggest the international community ought to advance some level of transnational oversight in this forum. However, at the very least, robust national models with best practices that provide some level of transparency for citizens enrolled in these programs, and an awareness about how their biometric information is collected, stored, transferred, shared, and so on. The notion that transparency rivals the interests of security is by no means objective or natural, but the result of an effective discourse that is bound up with neoliberalism and exceptionalism. Transparency and robust systems that allow citizens to feel that they have a stake in the process and their own biometric data will contribute positively to border security and not undermine it. Challenging this discourse is likely to the be most essential part of this equation, in order to provide the conditions of possibility for the level of oversight and privacy protection in the biometric border.

Christophe: In the manner of the prototype developed as part of this report, could you imagine biometric authentication mechanisms that, instead of “(rein)forcing the rituals and performances of state identity”, encourage the construction of a much more diverse set of identities? Passports and refugee travel documents can’t be individually customized and are, in that sense, most alienating. Could biometric technologies (re-)introduce a sense of identity in the authentication process?

BJM: I’m not sure whether biometric authentication can ever be about diversity. As Pugliese and others have effectively demonstrated, the development of biometric technologies is driven by a distinct set of market ideals, limited notions of race, gender and class, and assumptions about state power. These assumptions are all bred into the technology itself, and so some of the ways in which biometrics contribute to a valorization of particular identities and particular sorts of identity and identification, is not as simple as speaking about how these technologies are applied.  However, I do not believe that biometrics in and of themselves need to be antithetical to richer notions of identity. If enriching and complicating identity was a motivating force and principle behind the development of biometric technologies, there’s no reason to believe that the body as password may not in fact be a positive development. However, it is essential that diverse interests and identities are stakeholders in the development and application of biometrics, rather than “victims” or test populations for these technologies that are largely developed in an ethical, cultural and socio-political vacuum.

For more about biometrics and identity, read the following report : A More Human Approach to Identity Checks.