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Biometric Scanning and Civil Rights, Part 2

by jeremy    Dec 10, 2001


editor's note: last week, we ran a piece about the impending installation of biometric facial scanners at the Los Angeles Airport (find it here). This is a further expansion on that piece. enjoy.

When it comes to technology and security concerns, I'm of two minds: 1) I feel that any tool which can protect the public-at-large from crime and terrorism is good; 2) I feel that I may live to see the movie "Terminator" become a reality. My challenge, as you can see, is to reconcile the two.

Computers and machines can help police and security forces do things that humans alone cannot do. This is why we devise and employ computers and machines. Let's say we have 250 would-be passengers wanting to board a cross-country flight. Airline and security personnel have (generally) less than 2 hours to search the passengers and all their baggage for potentially dangerous items (which, by the way, now include nail files, plastic forks, rubber mallets, sewing needles, Jackie Chan, and any other object or device which could potentially be used to harm another human being). This is a daunting task and it would be impossible without technology.

On the other hand, I don't think I'm exagerrating to say that within the next few decades we'll have machines that will x-ray, sniff, poke, prod, analyze, inspect, and interrogate you and your bags. These machines will appear first at airports, but could later be placed in shopping malls, sports arenas, restaurants, just about any public place. My wife would probably want to install one at the bedroom door (to be sure I'm not smuggling any latex "weapons" into bed).

Apart from the fact that these machines would probably force us to arrive at any public event hours in advance and open us up to potential embarrassment in front of strangers ("Sir, FBI profiles indicate that only terrorists and criminals have penises THAT small. Would you please step into the back room with Officer Bonglongey?"), there probably isn't anything more to be feared from them than the machines that already exist. After all, your friends probably have a small hidden camera in their bathroom, which means they know you go through their medicine chest and masturbate into their sink. Your local government has probably already installed a camera in the alley behind your favorite restaurant. Police are on their way now to arrest you for public urination. I could go on...

Today we are witness to an early generation of device called a biometric scanner. This device captures a picture of your face and compares it to other faces in its database. If your features resemble those of a known criminal or terrorist whose face is in the database, you will likely be detained. Some people speculate that if you look TOO much like someone else, authorities might actually believe you ARE that person. I suppose it's possible and a SWAT team could be called and you could be accidentally shot in the confusion. Chances are, though, that if you're NOT the actual terrorist or criminal in the database, the worst that you'll suffer is just more inconvenience and embarrassment.

For the moment, I'm not too concerned. As long as this kind of technology is only employed in public arenas and is utilized solely to maintain safety and security, I'm not worried. The worst that would likely happen is some security guard might see me pick my nose, scratch my crotch, or stare down the shirt of some hottie. However, if the government starts moving further down the road of blanket phone taps and broader domestic spying powers (all in the name of rooting out terrorism, of course), we may as well move to China.

Some civil libertarians see any move by the government to better monitor the public as a slippery slope into an abyss of fascism. I generally don't buy into "slippery slope" arguments. I usually believe that there's always some middle ground on any issue. But while protests from civil libertarians are going largely unheeded these days (after all, when people are frightened, the instinct to survive supercedes the desire for freedom), I think we should all bear in mind Patrick Henry's famous rallying cry, "Give me liberty or give me death!" This should be our mantra (albeit a tad extreme) through this crisis. We must be vigilant against abuses of our civil rights. Otherwise, measures enacted to protect us from terror will accomplish exactly what our enemies want.


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