Emilio Mordini, RESPONSIBLE TECHNOLOGY, Paris
04 January 2016 15:48 GMT

Two major events have left a mark on 2015. The first has been 11/13 attack in Paris. In the immediate aftermath, most French and European politicians have called for a more extensive use of biometrics. Politicians include biometrics in their lists, when they want to show their determination to fight terrorists.

The evidence that most attacks, including the last in Paris, have been carried out by people who did not conceal their identities, seems totally immaterial to them. People involved in biometrics sneer a bit, but they are actually happy, because the security market is highly profitable. Yet, security is a distorting driver. At the end, the security model runs the risk to be fatal to biometrics. Security looks at identification chiefly in terms of subjects passively recognized by an external authority.

This scheme is hardly tenable in a liberal state, where individuals are not subjects but citizens, who voluntarily prove their identity in order to access political and civil rights.  The welfare state has still enlarged this concept, making recognizability an essential pre-requisite not only for claiming rights (civil, political, social) but also for interacting at all levels with state and non-state institutions.

This principle is well illustrated by the second event that is worth mentioning, the European migrant crisis. In 2015, a huge influx of migrants[1], chiefly coming from the Syrian theater of war, arrived in Europe provoking a humanitarian and political crisis, and creating tensions within and between EU member states over how best to deal with resettling people.

Under the pressure of the crisis, EU leaders proposed to create a web of biometric hotspots for the “swift identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants”[2], proposing national border authorities to use “proportionate coercion” in case of refusal to give fingerprints.  Privacy advocates and human right organizations have raised a number of ethical issues. No one, however, has raised the fundamental question about the “identity gap” that is harshly affecting most low-income countries, not only Syria.

Since the French revolution, which first enacted a law linking citizenship to birth certificate, the state itself has always granted traceability of identities. Yet, traditional,  paper-based, ID schemes are not dependable enough in most parts of the world and hence unfit for governing today people’s mobility on global scale, including humanitarian crises. Moreover, ID schemes, based on the integrity of the birth certificate chain, are increasingly unable to meet the complexity of contemporary identities (e.g., online identities, new kinds of parenthood, transgender people, etc.).

The global world needs a new system for personal recognition. Biometrics might be the answer, if one avoids wasting time, resources and skills, going with the security flow. When one speaks of global biometric identifiers, people immediately think of a nightmarish scenario, a unique world database, including billions of individuals, run by a global superpower. This is (bad) science fiction. We lack the technical and financial capacity, not to mention the international agreement, for creating such a database, which cannot exist today, and will hardly ever exist in the future. 

One could instead imagine a system based on many decentralized applications. An ongoing rhizome, made up of several distributed, interoperable, biometric databases, owned by local collaborative organizations and agencies. This system could increasingly support identity transactions on a global basis, at the beginning only in specific areas (e.g., regular migrant workers), siding traditional systems, and then, gradually, enlarging its scope, and substituting old systems. Are ethical and democratic challenges expected?

Of course, but there is no reason to think that they will be more severe than those that are posed by the traditional system. Ethical challenges very rarely originate from technology choices, more frequently they derive from related policy decisions. Opponents to the idea of a global biometric identifier should tell the alternative that they propose.  Otherwise, they will contribute, although unwittingly, to create the situation in which “proportionate coercion” remains the sole alternative to indiscriminate refoulement.

[1] The European Border Agency, Frontex, estimates that about 1.300.000 people entered the EU external border without a regular visa in 2015.  According to EUROSTAT, 980.000 of these migrants have claimed asylum.

[2] http://www.planetbiometrics.com/article-details/i/3197/desc/can-biometrics-help-with-europes-migrant-problem/#sthash.9OqdogUF.dpuf

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