The – hopefully – final period of my Bachelor’s is upon me, and I have eight weeks in which to concoct a thesis. I’m concocting one about biometric identification.
'Research something you don’t know much about, then at least you’ll learn something,’ was one of my teachers’ advice when I had to decide what to write my thesis about. I took that advice and ended up with a thesis on biometric identification. Which is certainly educational.
Wait, what is biometric identification, again? Well, you know the chip in a European passport? It contains biometric data with which you can be identified, like your fingerprint. With a comparison of the fingerprint with one stored centrally, we can be identified quickly and be across a border in no time. Criminals can be identified faster too, because there can be no quibbling about the authenticity of a fingerprint, apparently. All very efficient and safe, you might think, but we don’t feel that way about it because we live in a democratic state here and are not oppressed by our government. And a fingerprint could be used against you.
In Israel and Palestine, which I’m doing a literature study on, not everyone has the same rights. An oppressed Palestinian with a particular political affiliation or a particular background is automatically seen as a security risk in the system, leading to restricted mobility and extra attention at army checkpoints. We are not talking here about a handful of exceptions: in 2006, nearly half the Palestinian population were registered as security risks. So a biometric database turns the ID card with a fingerprint into an instrument of control, and with the state of emergency Israel has had in place since 1948, such measures are easy to legitimize.
What happens in a conflict zone such as Israel and Palestine seems a distant reality, and we can’t imagine power being used like that here. But in these coronavirus times we are actually in a real state of emergency, which has led to some tougher power play in many states. Since early May, for instance, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro no longer count as democratic states, according to the democracy watchdog Freedom House. I wouldn’t entertain critical thoughts about President Orban of Hungary if my identity could be revealed through my fingerprint, especially if Facebook and Google already have it, as is often the case.
Another convenience is being able to unlock your mobile phone with your fingerprint. But we don’t stop to think about the fact that this links your online activities to your body. Those advertisements you see on Facebook are especially for you, because your surfing behaviour is monitored. Take a look under ad preferences on Facebook and you’ll find a complete analysis of your personality waiting for you. According to Facebook, my top interests are: Islamism and the Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
An Islamist interested in Netanyahu? Sorry, Facebook, you haven’t got my number yet. But the techniques to do so already exist. We had better be aware of that before our democracy slides down the slippery slope as well.'