The MW files: Behind Blue Eyes

(First published in Man’s World, January 2002 under the column slug ID)


Behind Blue Eyes

Let your eyes travel to the top of the page. Look very hard at the slug–that’s the two-letter thingummajig that serves as the heading of this column–poised above these lines of copy.

Now some of you have been reading me all these months under the impression that the letters ID will soon be succeeded by EGO and who knows, perhaps even SUPEREGO in the fullness of time. The rest, of course, know that this column’s supposed to be about ID as in, “Do you have any ID, sir?”, as in “He IDed the corpse from teeth fragments”, as in “She had to create an ID for herself from scratch, in five minutes flat”. We all know what ID as in identity means. What few of us realise is how fast and how painlessly it’s going to change.

If you check out discussions on emerging technologies, one of the hottest growth areas right now is a little something called biometrics. In its larger sense, this is the statistical analysis of biological observations and phenomena, blah blah bleeh bleeh. It’s used far more commonly these days to describe the experimental technologies that will be used, increasingly, to identify human beings from their biological characteristics rather than from their names (the basis of most ID cards today), their social status or their photographs (oh, those timebound, inaccurate, easily fakeable artifacts of the 21st century).

Now, an extremely common method of identifying people from their biological characteristics is already in use. It’s called fingerprinting, and it has undesirable connotations with crime that make it hard for authorities to enforce it on people who will no doubt protest being classified with the illiterate and local bad characters. (Though if you renewed or acquired a driving licence recently in Delhi, let me warn you that you will be fingerprinted, just like any common criminal. And if that raises undesirable connotations, too bad: go off and buy yourself a licence in one of the satellite towns if you feel so strongly about it!) It’s also not one hundred per cent reliable, and in several Western countries, the combination of the social stigma plus the unreliability means that it’s unlikely to be the identification method of choice.

DNA profiling has a high reliability rate, and like many of the other options we’ll discuss, lends itself to easy databasing if you make it a requirement for every newborn child to be DNA profiled at birth. But sample collection and the time it takes to match DNA samples makes it an unwieldy technique for general identification purposes.

Face recognition systems are being promoted enthusiastically by companies who argue that it’s cheap and relatively reliable: cheap if you already have surveillance cameras installed, that is. This relies on various “face mapping” techniques, allied to a database that recognises and sorts different human face types. Advanced systems can track and predict changes caused by age/ disease/ stress and even disfigurement, making this an improvement on the photo identity card. But face recognition systems are by far the least accurate and the most prone to error of all ID systems, making them of use only in large areas (stadiums, auditoria, rally sites) where you need to screen out, say, all the people who closely resemble Terrorist X or Revolutionary Y.

Palm print recognition devices are much favoured by those who feel that it adds a certain James Bond touch to, say, paying the cheque: you raise your hand in the manner of an absentminded Caesar and let it hover over the scanner, perhaps twitching a fingertip to add a tip. Like face recognition systems, though, these have slightly less than 90 per cent accuracy–not accurate enough to make them the premier choice.

But none of these are quite as hot at the moment as retinal scan devices. These are already in use, in an experimental way, at several European airports and combine several advantages: retinal scans are almost as accurate as DNA printing techniques, they are user-friendly, requiring nothing from the person under scrutiny except that they look back into a camera, and are reasonably cost-effective. At the risk of being called politically incorrect, I will also point out that far fewer people have lost both their eyes than have lost both hands (a serious impediment to palm recognition and fingerprinting technologies), making this a more practical alternative as well.

If you ask the average frequent flyer what she thinks of this, you’re likely to be met with a glory hallelujah. Except for the more invasive or more demeaning technologies (fingerprinting? Naah, we’re talking microchip implantation, skin/ blood sampling for DNA printing, that sort of invasive), the rest of the options open for discussion have several advantages over present systems of identification.

If, for the purposes of argument, retinal scanning became the order of the day, this is what law enforcement agencies, customs agencies, police networks, government administrations and security-conscious companies would be looking at: a database of retinal prints backed by all the personal/ security/ financial data that currently uses up much paper and keeps many bureaucracies alive. In theory, a database could be built that simultaneously lets 1) customs know that you’re not an official smuggler 2) police know that your resemblance to Osama is merely accidental 3) the airline staff know that you prefer tofu-based vegetarian meals 4) your car rental service know that you were eminently creditworthy. There would be no question of worrying about stolen passports, applying in triplicate for renewal, attaching supporting documentation. All the authorities would need to identify you would be a small, perhaps even portable, device. Contact lenses would not make a difference: retinal scanning uses about 79 factors to make a match, of which colour is only one. So all the man behind the scanner would have to do to know exactly what was going on behind your blue eyes, or green, or brown, is to read the data coming up on his handheld computer screen. This applies across the board: you wouldn’t need to remember 16 different sets of data for different sorts of identification documents. Your credit card, driver’s licence, bank loan documents–all sorts of paperwork would become redundant.

The only people who have alarm bells going off in their heads are the small, and threatened, minority of privacy advocates. They point out that various regimes have attempted, throughout history, to achieve just such an efficient system of identification. The Nazis did it very well in Germany, substituting present-day technology with a small emblem called the Star of David, which all Jews wore on pain of death. Earlier in the century, the US Income Tax department tied up with social services in their quest to ensure that no one ducked out of their fiscal responsibilities as a citizen: hence the rise of the Social Security number as prime identifier in that country.

But when you have convenience on one hand–no more papers, fewer explanations, shorter lines, a truly global village, even–balanced against what are esoteric concerns of privacy, what do you think is going to win out?

It is hard for most of us, neophytes at the edge of the 21st century, happy enough to live in an age of Big Brother so long as he’s not obvious about the fact that he’s watching us, to imagine how far-reaching the changes will be. Let’s try an analogy with a document most of us take for granted in this century–the basic passport. Known as early as the 13th century, it was still something of a curiosity and unnecessary adornment until the late 19th century, when passports began to be issued in something approaching large numbers. But passports only achieved the importance and relative irreplaceability they possess now after the Second World War, when the presence of floating populations of refugees made it imperative to have some form of identifying document. That was a mere half-century ago: if you’re under 50, tell me in all seriousness that you can even envisage travelling to, say, seven or eight countries in a year without a passport or equivalent documentation.

Human memories are short; we adapt ourselves very, very quickly indeed to legal or social requirements that we may have initially repudiated on the grounds of intrusiveness or cumbersomeness. (Not convinced? Ask a bunch of Americans whether they object to full-body searches at airports after September 11, 2001. Collate their answers. There’s a useful survey on individual privacy at the University of Chicago that records, before April 2001, the reaction of Americans to full-body searches at airports/ government buildings: over 80 per cent were strongly opposed.)

Privacy advocates are hoping that they can generate enough of a debate over the nastier issues involved in universal identification to get the public exercised. None of these issues are frivolous. Take that ubiquitous and necessary database: who has access, and at what level? Does the man checks your ID at the door of a nightclub get to hack into your credit card, or access your juvenile crime record? Will those customs officials end up selling your entire database to interested companies? These are minor concerns compared to the nightmare scenarios that might unfold: will political parties use the data acquired by a universal identification system to pick on specific races, castes, classes?

But they’re fighting a losing battle. If you look at the history of the last century, convenience, or issues of national or personal security, have always won out over privacy issues. There is no reason to believe that this one will be any different–especially if you consider the obvious conveniences of letting your body be your sole document of identity.

There is, however, one minor little thing I do worry about. For all the comforts and revolutionary movements of the 20th century, I think it will, eventually, go down in history as the age that killed off the myth of the individual once and for all. What I’m wondering is what the next century will find expendable. The answer should be fairly interesting, but somehow, I find I’m not sorry that I’ll never be part of that brave new world.

Nilanjana S Roy

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