Why Iris

Is visibility a right, a threat, or a fact?

Aadhaar biometric ID enrollment — Reuters

Biometric authentication has strengths and weaknesses addressed elsewhere. What are we missing when we predict how we would live with this type of technology?

We have bad security habits: we use common passwords, lose our keycards, and obey social engineers. We want convenience more than security. We leave our doors and windows unlocked, our hard drives unencrypted. We want a username that allows us to move online without trackability, and also lets us vote, shop, and buy things. We want a password that safeguards our belongings, and lets us share personal details. We want to transact business in a way that maintains the link between our agreements and the results, while keeping the transaction private. We want other transactions to be traceable and public: we want to know who is responsible for what; who acted, or approved an action that affected us.

Biometric authentication could solve these issues, but the thinking around biometrics is noisy with the threats of universal trackability and more complete privacy violation. It is difficult to start a new conversation about biometrics, for good reason — we have lost our innocence about technology that is sold to us as being for our own good. We know tech cuts both ways: we are the consumers and the consumed, we feed the vision of entrepreneurs in the thrall of their hopes and en masse we are graded and sorted according to whom we can benefit most.

We sort of get that, up to a point. Commerce makes some demands, and becomes what we do. Our basic enthusiasm for creating, selling, and buying new things becomes a way to participate in life. We look to improve what we are, what we do, and how we do it. That requires finding out, and understanding, what people want. But the use of those same information-collecting technologies to goad us further, purely as pliable subjects of force, well — that is a problem. There are people and organizations that thrive on the ability to control others. They need power or money or more of whatever, and they need it in a way that is hard for many of us to understand or even to imagine. [1]

We have to start with a negative: biometric authentication, and the structure and process to make full use of it, may not prevent organized or institutional threats to privacy, and could even make them worse.

But the part we fear may not be the main impact — we tend to miss the obvious until after it arrives. Large things are hard to see when our focus is near and sharp. We are builders using tools to make more tools, and we forget that time spent with those tools becomes a life which shapes us in turn. To predict the impact of technology we need to get better at predicting “how our behavior is changed by the very changes that technology brings.” [2]

To consider other impacts of biometrics, we almost need to project ourselves 10 or 20 years into the future and then look back and assess how our lives changed as we lived with it.

To help us move around in time, let’s start with the underpinnings of biometrics and consider the path taken by past inventions.

Authentication is a way of proving you are you. It is a way to represent yourself to another that demonstrates that you are an individual that is both different from anyone else in the world and the same as you were yesterday and tomorrow. Authentication identifies you from the mass of diversity. Authentication implies uniqueness.

Identity implies uniqueness, so already the two ideas intersect in our own individuality and our basic (for today anyway) comprehension of how we interact socially and politically. What we call freedom is based on a unique identifier of a political self: one person one vote; I own this plot of land; this is my home; this is my car. I make legal agreements; signing my name gives consent and enacts choice. I use my credit card: the long number on it means the account is mine. I write checks, I spend money, I am paid. We agree, I give my word.

Language abstracts ideas into information, making thought transmittable. Language lets you send an idea from your head into someone else’s head, even if they are so far away that they can’t see you.

Money abstracts work into value, making value transmittable. Money lets you send value flexibly, in more ways than you could deliver a cow to a neighbor.

I sit at a table in a room of solid floors and clean walls, heated for the winter. I’m typing text using a computer, typing words for a purpose, doing work. This arrangement took the whole of history up until now to arrive. Not only the immediate action but also the combination of surrounding attributes have a level of sophistication that indicates how well the long process worked: a degree of agreement between the collected individual needs and the delivery of change over time.

The efficiency of language and money as tools we use to both move through social life and to move social life itself is clear — we use them to express and build because they work for us. And on us. Language continues to alter us, changing what we are: how we see ourselves and how we perform our lives. Language trains us to employ more complex predictive methods that place us in another’s shoes to an extent unexplained by simple empathy. [3]

Language fashioned into the form and message of stories improve our ability to sense when we are being tricked. Stories in every form — from movies and books to gossip and internal projections — have helped us practice scenarios of duplicity-detection over and over until it has become an evolved sense we have instilled in ourselves. Some animals grew good noses; we grew brains that run fraud simulations. [4]

The tools of language and money are powerful; they have given us benefits and have also caused problems. The downside of language, of detaching ideas from the physical source, is that it is easy to lie. We are easily moved by the best liar instead of the best leader. The downside of money is that it enables theft of your collected value. Anyone quicker to steal can control your ability to survive. Theft and manipulation are so well established that we have trouble discerning them from service and communication. Health insurance comes to mind.

Would you give up all the ways we have evolved while using the tools of language and money? Instead of this pleasant environment for focused effort where I find myself in this moment, would I be thinking thank god I still live in a cave, we dodged the dangers of language and money, we have prevented a future of parasitic politicians and promiscuous capitalism?

Biometrics abstracts individuality into identity, making your uniqueness transmittable. Biometrics lets you send your choice, your own exact selection of action, anywhere that an encoded message can reach. Biometric authentication conveys your uniqueness so that you can project your identity elsewhere — it validates your choices as yours.

What are the benefits of biometrics? Does it only address the inefficiencies of security, the high cost and poor security of lost keycards, forgotten passcodes, and weak passwords?

Is there anything less obvious we find transformed by biometrics?

If our choices are “watermarked” with our identity, there could be accountability in areas where accountability is currently hidden. For example, a “mortgage crisis” would not have anonymous origins. Could white collar thievery be more exposed? Would executive actions hidden behind the corporate trick mirror — the rights of personhood on one side and no accountability on the other — be tracked and pinpointed?

What happens if every person in the world is identifiable to every other person in the world? Not the actuality at any instant, but the potential. For example, the recording of all children’s biometrics in areas that had no consistent records before, where people are prevented from gaining birth certificates, passports, social security numbers, voter registrations, or other legal identifiers due to location, social standing, money, or lack of supporting social structures. [5]

A description and historical examples of each can be found in volume two of

The Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp, describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. Many of these methods require some sort of identification, of being known by a reasonably unchanging locator in the social map. Oppressors gain by making their subjects less; less heard, less known, less visible. [6]

Is visibility a right, a threat, or a fact?

Remember Arab Spring, when suddenly a pervasive app that lends itself to individual tracking, Twitter, became a tool for withstanding repression? And now it has become a poking-stick, sharp on both ends.

Remember when CCTV security/surveillance cameras (security is watching your own property, surveillance is watching someone else’s) were such a threat to privacy? And now by having a camera in every person’s hands so much abuse by public servants is revealed.

What happens when every person gains a transmittable biometric identity? The regular list: 1) better personal security, 2) always with us, 3) unobtrusive, almost unnoticed, 4) super specific, only one per person, and 5) lasts a lifetime. But we also gain a tool that strengthens our choices as individuals. We gain access to public services for previously unrecorded individuals. We gain the ability to identify agents of public-affecting actions.

Do we also gain a tool that increases our ability to amass the power of numbers against the powers that depend on us being unknown and unnoticed? It doesn’t seem in our nature to be quiet about who we are.

Extending the path we are on now, and looking back from the future, what is it we learn from biometrics?

If you can’t be counted, you don’t count.

Yes, biometrics makes us more trackable and more easily surveilled. But maybe the benefits will far outweigh the weaknesses, similar to our history with money, language, cameras, and social apps. Did we imagine a day when the shortest messages would carry us like little boats on the biggest lies? But here we are. Creating personal biometrics for authentication is a step that helps us protect ourselves against newer forms of old-school domination.

[1] Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence? By Dirk Helbing, Bruno S. Frey, Gerd Gigerenzer, Ernst Hafen, Michael Hagner, Yvonne Hofstetter, Jeroen van den Hoven, Roberto V. Zicari, Andrej Zwitter on February 25, 2017. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-democracy-survive-big-data-and-artificial-intelligence/

[2] Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot, We predicted cell phones, but not women in the workplace, By Tom Vanderbilt , September 10, 2015. “…how our behavior is changed by the very changes that technology brings.” -Historian Judith Flanders. http://nautil.us/issue/28/2050/why-futurism-has-a-cultural-blindspot

[3] This is How Literary Fiction Teaches Us to Be Human, By Tom Blunt, September 15, 2016. “…researchers found that reading literary fiction led to better results in subjects tested for Theory of Mind.” http://www.signature-reads.com/2016/09/this-is-how-literary-fiction-teaches-us-to-be-human/

[4] On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, By Brian Boyd. Important to human survival is the ability to sense when one is being tricked. Stories in every form — from movies and books to gossip and internal projections — have helped us practice scenarios of duplicity-detection over and over until it has become an evolved sense. Some animals grew good noses; we grew brains that run fraud simulations. https://www.amazon.com/Origin-Stories-Evolution-Cognition-Fiction/dp/0674057112

[5] Fingerprinting Infants Helps Track Vaccinations in Developing Countries By Martin LaMonica, September 4, 2014. Biometrics researchers are using off-the-shelf fingerprint sensors and new software to track vaccination records of young children in Africa. Every year, millions of people in the developing world do not receive vaccinations because of poor record keeping. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/530481/fingerprinting-infants-helps-track-vaccinations-in-developing-countries/

[6] 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, Practitioners of nonviolent struggle have an entire arsenal of “nonviolent weapons” at their disposal. Listed below are 198 of them, classified into three broad categories: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, and political), and nonviolent intervention. A description and historical examples of each can be found in volume two of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp. http://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/198-methods-of-nonviolent-action/


“Every tool has two ends, one working on the material, the other on the man.” –John Halsham, 1907 (from Marianne Boruch, Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing)

The Invisibles: The cruel Catch-22 of being poor with no ID, By Patrick Marion Bradley, June 15, 2017. As of 2006, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, up to 11 percent of U.S. adults had no government-provided photo ID. Since then, federal requirements for IDs have grown tougher, contributing to a loop that can help keep people trapped in poverty. For poor Americans, IDs are a lifeline — a key to unlocking services and opportunities, from housing to jobs to education. And in states with strict voter ID laws, the lack of an ID can hinder voting. “This is a huge issue for people who are homeless and poor in general,” says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Without an ID, basically you don’t exist.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/lifestyle/magazine/what-happens-to-people-who-cant-prove-who-they-are/2017/06/14/fc0aaca2-4215-11e7-adba-394ee67a7582_story.html

As Security Violations Erupt, Operator of India’s Biometric Database Stands at Troubling Crossroad, By Srinivas Kodali, 25/02/2017. Identity theft is not new in India and it has increasingly become clear that there are a number of technical and interrelated privacy concerns surrounding the Aadhaar system. While privacy advocates have been demanding investigations into a number of isolated (yet concerning) incidents over the past few years, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has paid little heed. https://thewire.in/111869/indias-largest-biometric-database-turns-delhi-police-help/

As Governments Adopt Biometrics As National IDs, They May Become Bigger Risk To Personal Cyber Security, By Lucian Armasu , December 29, 2016. Biometrics: Password Or Username? We now have governments and the tech and banking industries pushing biometrics in two different and incompatible directions that will eventually make our security even worse than it is now with all the password re-use. http://www.tomshardware.com/news/governments-biometrics-national-ids-cybersecurity,33267.html

Biometrics, Wikipedia, Issues and concerns, Human dignity, Privacy and discrimination, Danger to owners of secured items, Cancelable biometrics, International sharing of biometric data, Likelihood of full governmental disclosure. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biometrics

Click Here to Kill Everyone, By Bruce Schneier, January 27, 2017. With the Internet of Things, we’re building a world-size robot. How are we going to control it? http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/01/the-internet-of-things-dangerous-future-bruce-schneier.html

The first poet must have suffered much when the cave-dwellers laughed at his mad words. He would have given his bow and arrows and lion skin, everything he possessed, just to have his fellow-men know the delight and the passion which the sunset had created in his soul. -Kahlil Gibran

All stories are about wolves. Anything else is sentimental drivel. -Margaret Atwood

Greek leftists turn deserted hotel into refugee homes, By Patrick Strickland, 3 July 2016. “It was a gesture to reclaim the right of the visibility of refugees.” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/greek-leftists-turn-deserted-hotel-refugee-homes-160629131217044.html

Tigers use scent, birds use calls — biometrics are just animal instinct, By Bruce Schneier, January 7, 2009. Biometrics are easy, convenient, and when used properly, very secure; they’re just not a panacea. Understanding how they work and fail is critical to understanding when they improve security and when they don’t. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/jan/08/identity-fraud-security-biometrics-schneier-id

How Twitter Amplifies Authoritarianism, By Jason Ditzian, 2–21–2017. A brief history of communications technology for autocrats https://thebolditalic.com/how-twitter-amplifies-authoritarianism-f636dd2cb39#.5t7ji2r6q

“All the oppressed must do to overcome their oppressors is to look them in the face.” Milan Kundera paraphrased by Lynn Emanuel in The American Poetry Review, Jan./Feb. 2017, page 22.

Why Nothing Works Anymore, By Ian Bogost, Feb 23, 2017. The more technology multiplies, the more it amplifies instability. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it’s evolving separately from human use. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/the-singularity-in-the-toilet-stall/517551/

India, the Aadhaar Nation That Isn’t Legally Equipped to Handle Its Adverse Effects, By Aarthi S. Anand on 08/12/2016. As we hurtle towards being an Aadhaar nation, it is imperative that a legal framework, to protect our cherished rights to security and life, is created. https://thewire.in/84925/aadhaar-privacy-security-legal-framework/

With help from Nathan Lively, Elis Bradshaw, and Ric Williams.