Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Biometric identities: San Francisco and Iraq


My gym now uses my biometric "signature" to figure out whether I am a paid member. "We no longer issue membership cards" the signs proclaim. No -- you enter your phone number and stick your finger onto the boxy little scanner in the picture above. If all goes well (not always in my case), a green light on the scanner flashes and the read-out at the top of the key pad urges "ENJOY YOUR WORKOUT!" All very efficient.

Ten years ago I might have protested allowing a gym to store a scan of my index finger. I probably still should, but that's a fight I haven't got the energy for. After all, the Feds got my fingerprints decades ago when I blockaded one of their buildings and the local cops took prints at many of my civil disobedience arrests. Not to mention that the State of California takes prints at the DMV. They know who I am; they have for a long time.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that my gym is effectively running a marketing test of whether consumers will accept giving private entities their bodily signatures.

"It's just part of our 'cyber-existence' these days," said Dan Miller, a senior analyst at Opus Research in San Francisco, which has focused on voice verification. "The neat thing about biometrics is that you are the thing that identifies you."

More creepty that "neat" it seems to me, but we will undoubtedly live with more of it.
***
As the occupation phase of the U.S. war on Iraq winds down, Iraqis are encountering unanticipated consequences of U.S. enthusiasm for collecting biometric identities. Our soldiers wanted any help they could get in figuring out who was blowing them up, so they collected biometric data on as many Iraqis as they could get their hands on.

Nearly 7 percent of Iraq’s 29 million people are cataloged — their names, facial scans, and often other details about them, such as whether they were considered a friend or foe. ...

US forces started collecting fingerprints in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, as part of interrogations of agents of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The US military also helped computerize Iraq’s fingerprint files from Hussein’s era. US soldiers reportedly collected fingerprints and DNA samples from 80,000 detainees in their custody. (It is not clear how those samples have been used.)

After the military’s incursion into Fallujah in 2004, US soldiers collected fingerprints and iris scans of every resident as they passed through checkpoints to return. They wanted a record of the legitimate residents, so they could detect infiltrators. In parts of Baghdad, US soldiers went door to door, collecting information. They also enrolled entire villages at the request of tribal leaders.

So now that the U.S. Army is on the way out, who gets this collection of identity information? In a society that has mostly been ruled by dictators who employed a diligent and vicious secret police, this is not an idle question. The idea of one or another of the competing sectarian ethnic cleansing gangs that now label themselves political parties getting the data is scary. So is the likelihood that someday having had a close contact with the U.S. occupiers may be enough to get an Iraqi fired or even killed. Opinions differ on what passing on the data will mean:

Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida'ie, said he would like to see Iraq's government use it fight corruption. ...

But Sa'ad Al-Izzi, 36, a former New York Times reporter who fled Iraq after he was threatened for working with Americans, said he fears such intelligence cooperation between the United States and Iraq will cause problems.

"It is dangerous to hand this information to the Iraqi government and security forces, which are infiltrated to a great extent by militias and insurgency groups," he said. "It would be useful for a national trusted official security force. . . . But are they a professional, national, trusted security force? In my opinion, they are not."

For the Iraqis, the war isn't over, despite Oval office speeches.

4 comments:

Darlene said...

The poor Iraqi citizens. I fear for many of them once we are gone for good. Vengeance is so much a part of their culture.

Rebecca Gordon said...

Hmmm... Darlene, I wonder how you know that vengeance is part of Iraqi culture. Is it possible that this is one of those things "everybody knows" but isn't necessarily true.

I'd invite you to question whether vengeance is any more a part of Iraqi culture than say the culture of a nation that approved of invading Iraq in a (mistaken) act of vengeance for the attacks of 9/11.

Darlene said...

*Rebecca Gordon - Thank you for your visit and I hope this post won't discourage you from returning. If you don't think that revenge is part of the Arab culture, please note the bombing of the Shia by the Sunnis' for past transgressions; and vice versa. Or the killing that goes on to preserve the family honor. The Hatfields and the McCoys have nothing on the Arabs for revenge killings. The family honor comes above all else and if it is smirched, someone must pay. Isn't that vengeance?

A Caveat: not all Arabs subscribe to the fact that the family honor is to be preserved above all else any more than all Christians subscribe to bombing abortion clinics.

Iraq was not invaded as an act of vengeance. It would have been left alone if not for the oil fields. Yes, I know that George Bush used the fact that Saddam tried to murder his dad as an excuse and I think that is wrong, but it was not the real reason for the invasion.

I do not condone vengeance no matter who does it. However, it is not part of our culture.

Darlene said...

*Rebecca Gordon - I apoligize. I read your comment too hurriedly. Yes, there were those that approved of invading Iraq because of 9/11. I guess the majority did, but it was still not a cultural thing.

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