Glen Newey

Facebook’s $106 billion flotation last week offered a punt at $38 a share on a firm that databases consumer identities. Nobody knows, and some doubt, whether Facebook can convert that into dividends. But Google’s tussles with pseudonymous users like Identity Woman and BotGirl Questi show that ‘identity’ is big business both as cognomen and bundles of individuating data.

I was recently at the EU-funded Tabula Rasa consortium conference on spoofing biometric ID systems. As often, growing technical knowhow rubs against confusion over whether or how to use it. A few years down the line: off-the-shelf sampling kits that can give a DNA profile within an hour of taking a buccal swab. But as the technology leaps forward, so do the spoofters. You can buy a high-end fake face off the internet for a photo and a few grand. Tap in ‘fake passport’ on Google and you’re promised a dinkum-looking Spanish passport for just €600; those may go at a discount soon. Resolving for more variables makes spoofing harder: computer-users’ identities can be vetted by lexical and other verbal profiling, even idiosyncratic mouse-movements. But the reference data help fix the person’s identity: what if the wrong person, a ringer, shows up to start with?

My invitation to the conference was as the token pro-spoofer at an event otherwise dominated by cyber-prometheans, Blunkettoid devotees of the technical fix. Democracy upholds transparency as a value – but alongside such secrets de Polichinelle as collective responsibility and the institutionalised masking of citizens’ identity in some contexts (like the secret ballot). It’s not as if the state, in the form of plain-clothes cops or the wilder outreaches of espionage, is above a spoof or two – and they, unlike masked Occupiers, don’t even come clean about hiding their identity. Oscar Wilde’s brilliant parody of the Socratic elenchus in ‘The Decay of Lying’ denatures deceit, as an aesthetic impulse distinct from stolid nature: but spoofistry is as adaptive for bush-crickets as people.

That went down like a rat bhaji but, in fact, the biometricians made a fair job of dissing their own hood. Jim Wayman, a biometric consultant to UK government, showed in his talk that biometrics and social Darwinism share a tangled history. Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, who founded the journal Biometrika, pioneered fingerprinting and eugenics as arms of social engineering aimed at suppressing the criminal classes: first by jailing them, and ultimately by preventing their very existence. Galton’s fragmentary novel The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere, a land where ‘all immigrants are more or less suspected’, describes a faintly bovine Englishman taking, and passing, the Kantsaywhereans’ tests for eugenic fitness: he duly makes out with true-bred Miss Allfancy. Galton’s niece baulked at his overheated accounts of pedigree coupling and ripped those pages out of the typescript (the remnant survives with holographic corrections in UCL’s archives).

The Eugenic College was more than science fiction. In his will Galton endowed UCL’s chair in eugenics (now rebadged as the Galton Chair of Genetics) to meet the forebodings caused by differences in upper and lower-class birth rates, the double-minded worry being that the unfittest would triumph through sheer philoprogenitive gusto. In Buck v. Bell Oliver Wendell Holmes, revered in the pantheon of jurisprudes, argued (with an 8-1 majority) for forcibly sterilising the mentally unfit. The state was entitled to ‘call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices... to prevent our being swamped with incompetence’. Holmes went on to compare cutting the fallopian tubes to vaccination.

Biometry and eugenics co-emerged partly because of the white man’s burden – the need to police native populations who all looked the same – and to align measurable physical characteristics with the divide between ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ races (Galton advocated colonising Africa with Chinese immigrants to replace the indigenous ‘lazy, palavering savages’). Biometrics weathered the last century better than eugenics. As of now a new divide looms between the creditworthy, who can create their own virtual identities via ‘identity 2.0’ accreditation, and migrant populations whose identities get fixed biometrically, mainly in order to keep them out.


  • 22 May 2012 at 12:44pm
    outofdate says:
    Do you have any customer feedback for these passports? It would be nice to be done with this nocturnal rowing across rivers that wreaks havoc with the internal clock. (Fugitives note that Pochentong/Phnom Penh rarely fingerprints holders of EU passports even though they've got the scanners.)