The niceties of biometric control


Recently Japan has decided to follow in the footsteps of the United States and has instituted a system of photographing and fingerprinting all non-Japanese upon entry into Japan. However, Japan has taken this system one step further than the U.S. has — even those people designated as permanent residents in Japan will have their fingerprints taken. This means that non-Japanese parents of Japanese children will be made to enter a different line and follow a different entry procedure than their own children. It’s easy for people to view this kind of measure as a mere annoyance that’s necessary to protect national security, but the argument for security falls flat on its face. The idea that terrorists or criminals will be stopped at the border because their fingerprints will be taken is laughable. Deeply committed terrorists won’t be deterred by this system (there were no fingerprints to be matched up with after the attacks of September 11th), and professional criminals will be smart enough to put tape on their fingers while they do their dirty work. In addition to this, there really isn’t a database to match these fingerprints against — those who are intent on committing criminal or political violence haven’t all voluntarily added their fingerprints to an international database all of a sudden.

As of now, Japanese citizens are not fingerprinted, nor are the specially designated non-Japanese who live in Japan and hold Japanese passports (these are primarily Koreans and Chinese who have received this designation as a result of Japan’s pre-WWII imperial history). In other words, potential criminals/terrorists who are Japanese will be free to come and go unmarked, while clearly innocent foreign tourists and residents will be treated as criminals and their information will be added to a database that will be kept, if Japan follows the U.S. model, for 75 years. This is a frightening amount of time for a person’s deeply individualized biometric data to be kept on file.

There’s much more at stake here than just an abstract argument against the collection of data. In fact, data is constantly lost, stolen, and misused, and biometric data is especially dangerous because unlike credit card information, passport numbers, or even a photograph, biometric data is linked indelibly to your body. There are several major issues that go along with this, and I’ll try to be brief about three of them: 1) Identity theft and biometric crime. Unlike a password, once your fingerprint has been stolen and the data collected, you can’t just change it. This may not be much of a problem now, but as biometric data becomes more and more widely used as a form of identification, get ready for massive amounts of really damaging identity fraud. Fingerprints can be faked. 2) Aside from the threat of identity fraud and misappropriated information, there’s the danger of “mission creep” setting in to the fingerprinting enterprise. First the fingerprints will be used to ‘identify’ criminals and terrorists, then they’ll be used to monitor immigrant workers. Then they’ll start to be used as general identification. Then they’ll become part of a nationalized, or even internationalized, identification system. All very fine until you’re on the wrong end of it. One Japanese friend of mine speculates that, since this system so obviously won’t keep terrorists or criminals out, the real purpose of the system is to keep track of immigrant labor and to make sure that visa violators are kept from ever re-entering the country. I’m not sure about this, but what this highlights is the fact that there is absolutely no guarantee that your data will not be used for other purposes in the future. None whatsoever. 3) You can take in on trust if you want to that your data won’t be abused, but if you do you’ve got a pretty short historical memory and a lot of trust that the political powers of the future aren’t going to take a sudden turn for the worse. Here’s a bit from Kate Doyle’s excellent piece in the latest Harper’s on Guatemala’s civil war (in which some 200,000 people were killed):

One of the key documents in the archive is the ficha, the personal file card. At age eighteen, every adult in Guatemala is issued a small I.D. (known as a cédula) with his or her photograph and identifying particulars; the National Police would in turn create a larger index card that contained the same information as well as a complete set of fingerprints. The cards served the dual purpose of controlling the population and providing the state with a convenient means to track dissidents — the police used them to scribble notes about a person’s suspected political tendencies. For example, the ficha found in the archive for Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez — a schoolteacher and prominent leader in the Guatemalan Workers’ Party after the CIA-sponsored coup that ousted President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 — was marked “#1 Communist of Gauatemala” by the National Police. In 1966, Gutiérrez was disappeared in a joint military and police operation, designed with the aid of U.S. intelligence officers, and was tortured to death. His body was buried secretly in the countryside.

It’s easy enough to think that this kind of thing can’t happen now, but 75 years is a long time in political history. If you examine the history of the U.S. over the 20th century you can find plenty of reasons you wouldn’t want your fingerprints to be floating around with associated I.D. card and a file full of spottily collected information: arrests, beatings, and even killings of labor leaders at the beginning of the century; lynching in the South, and then the massive amounts of oppressive violence associated with the Civil Rights Movement; the McCarthyist witch hunts; COINTELPRO in the 70s; a century of frame-ups and false imprisonment; etc.

Mass collection of fingerprints? A bad idea, all the way around.

Click here to sign a petition against the collection of fingerprints upon entry to Japan.

Click here for Debito’s blog, which deals with this subject extensively.

2 Responses to “The niceties of biometric control”

  1. 1 iLL Man

    Hey Trane. first of all, a Happy Christmas to you and yours.

    Regarding the collection of Biometric data, the British Inland revenue office lost personal details of thousands of people recently. Imagine the shitstorm if they’d lost biological data……………doesn’t bear thinking about.

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Hello there Ill Man! Long time, ain’t it? Happy New Year to you and yours!! It’s the Year of the Rat, but here in Japan they like to call it the Year of the Mouse, which is a bit cuter, isn’t it?

    Yeah — biometric data collection is a dodgy business. Data is being lost/stolen all the time. My own university had a massive data breach when someone left a laptop lying around that contained the names, addresses, and social security numbers of tens of thousands of students, along with other information. Nothing ever seemed to come of it, but the ease of the loss of this kind of information is frightening.

    I can’t wait until my DNA gets published on the internet!

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