The Biometric Passport

Liv Hausken

Passports document our identities and our nationalities. They also record our travels across borders (in some instances, within borders). As a record of our identities, nationalities, and travel, passports function both practically and symbolically. Historically, for the system of passports (including tourist and working visas, identity cards, diplomatic passports, etc.) to work internationally, the passport needed to be made inviolable – and, with time, more and more refinements engineered to forestall forgeries and fakes were introduced: color photographs (United States, 1958), perforated passport covers (United States, 1961), and digital photographs (Japan, 1992). With each of these new debates, material and symbolic costs and risks have been weighed. In December 2004 the European Union called for regulating standards for security features and biometrics in its passports. In the aftermath of 9/11, technological enhancements are redefining the passport's look and feel. Embedding biological information, retinal scans, DNA, fingerprints, and so on will be introduced in varying ways by different countries (fingerprints in Norway by March 1, 2010) – but as these technologies make information at once available to machines and invisible to the human eye, they may be used to track the movement of their bearers in both predictable and unforeseen ways.

The recent enterprise of biometric passports overlaps in striking ways with historical attempts at transforming photography into an efficient scientific instrument through archiving and databasing. Photographic archives, allowing comparability across instances, were deployed in the fields of medicine and law in order to, on the one hand, identify criminals and to detect deviant individuals, and on the other hand, elucidate average or typical phenomena across multiple instances. These two nineteenth century strategies, associated with the names Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton, aimed towards gaining control over the fundamental problem of the archive. (Alphonse Bertillon developed what has become the prevailing standard for police portrait photography and also a complex index card classification system meant to enable picking specific individual cases out of the enormous number of images contained in the archive. In contrast, the anthropologist and eugenicist Francis Galton condensed numerous photographs by superimposing them to create a composite image, which was meant to cause individual traits to disappear and the characteristics common to the superimposed portraits to manifest themselves.) As Allan Sekula puts it in his influential essay “The Body and the Archive”, “Bertillon sought to embed the photograph in the archive. Galton sought to embed the archive in the photograph.” (1986:55) According to Sekula, these two poles characterize the treatment of the archive, which – beyond its police purpose in a stricter sense of the term – soon became the «dominant institutional basis for photographic meaning.» (56)

Comparisons with these historical cases, where photography was put to use as a means for surveillance and control, and, infamously, as a means for eugenics, may serve to anticipate societal, ethical, and legal aspects relating to emerging applied uses of biometric identification. The politics of the first of these two historically distant projects, so clear to us in hindsight and so broadly condemned, are not meant to indict the second case of contemporary biometric identification. Rather, by juxtaposing the first, with its highly exposed politics, to the second, the aim is to highlight the need for an equally careful functional and political analysis of the contemporary mobilized archival forms.

Published May 23, 2011 2:19 PM