Canadian academic examines intersection of technology and surveillance

October 11, 2013 - 

The role of the academic is that of skeptic. As the late Michel Foucault, famed French historian and philosopher noted during a debate with the equally famed linguist Noam Chomsky in 1971,  the real political task of academe is to “criticise the working of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

In this vein, Shoshana Magnet, an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa has taken the deployment and use of biometrics to task.

Magnet’s critical research focuses on the intersection of information and communication technologies and their use by governments for surveillance.  She examines how such technologies can be used, in effect, to criminalize poverty and track individual’s beyond a nation’s territorial boundaries. She also examines the impact of biometric and other surveillance technologies on identity and human rights.  Her work focuses on explaining the paradoxes emerging as this new technology becomes more prevalent in airports.

She also points out examples of how such technologies can constitute institutionalized forms of violence towards certain communities, especially transgender populations. In the video below she shares the findings of her research and addresses her future research directions:

Magnet notes that despite the fact governments have invested billions of dollars in fingerprint, iris and retina recognition in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks, biometric technologies often fail to work.  In her book, “When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity” she notes that technical literature often points out that biometric technology frequently malfunction.

Magnet argues that biometric system fail so often because rendering human bodies in biometric code falsely assumes that people’s bodies are always the same and unchanging over time.  By focusing on moments when biometrics fail, Magnet demonstrates that they fail more often when women, people of color and people with disabilities are subjected to their use.

Her scholarship emphasizes that governments use biometrics primarily to control and classify vulnerable and marginalized populations, which include: prisoners, welfare recipients, immigrants and refugees.

In fact, Magnet has argued in previous academic articles with colleagues that despite biometrics and other security systems being marketed as objective and neutral, they in fact, only reinforce existing social inequalities. Drawing upon Angela Davis’ scholarship, she even posits that whole body imaging technologies constitutes a form of state-sponsored sexual assault.  By demonstrating the disproportionate impact of whole body imaging technologies on particular communities, including the intersections of transgender travelers, travelers with disabilities, and racialized and religious communities, Magnet’s research argues that whole body imaging technologies continue and expand upon the tradition of “stratified mobilities” that has always been a component of air travel.

She sees the emergence of the alleged “non-invasiveness” and efficiency of “virtual strip searches” as a troubling trend that allows the state to consolidate power through increasingly concealed surveillance practices.  Previous reporting, commentary and reader dialogue in BiometricUpdate.com has indicated that both private citizens and privacy advocates have also demonstrated serious concerns over such surveillance technologies and believe that oversight rules and limits should be imposed.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.