Biometric Scanning and Civil Rights, Part 2
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
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.