Government zeal for biometric surveillance can be traced back 20 years
The most surprising aspect of biometric systems is not how pervasive they have become in American lives since 9/11. It is that two decades after the attacks, how little citizens know or even care about an industry that continues to play a growing role in their lives.
It was after the attack that government realized how fragile national defenses were against a terrorist who understood how American society worked.
Paper documents, interagency competition, antiquated lines of communications, Balkanized national security data stores and more ensured that infiltrators could largely come and go as they pleased while planning murder on the scale of warfare.
Janice Kephart, a former investigative counsel on the 9/11 Commission, has produced and narrated a documentary looking back at many of the most egregious oversights and security that made the atrocity possible, if not inevitable.
Among the disturbing facts uncovered by the commission report and presented in the video is that the 19 hijackers had 364 aliases as well as fraudulent and doctored passports. Some of the documents survived the airline crashes.
The terrorists had won a document game dating back at least to ancient Persia when the first travel papers are thought to have been issued. Since then, authentic (looking) papers have conveyed authenticity to bearers.
A key observation of the report was that the U.S. government had to get out of the documentation game and get into the identification game, something it would need biometrics to pull off.
The U.S. government could do worse than use images of the hijackers’ surviving travel documents as the symbols of why unbeatable digital authentication should be the primary goal for border protection.
Nonetheless, it was that epiphany that prompted serious federal and state spending on face, iris, gait, voice biometrics and digital surveillance. The research and development have spilled over into the commercial sector.
The result is that biometric data is being collected more than ever before, and more with each passing day. Faces unlock iPhones, which is good. But there is little to stop the identifying image of someone entering a supermarket from being scooped up and monetized or used by a government in many parts of the world.
Many cogent arguments have been made about the ethical risk of using biometrics as a government or business resource without the approval or knowledge of the subjects.
But in the background of those debates is the notion that biometric surveillance could have changed how 9/11 played out.