chapter  9
17 Pages

Embodying risk: Using biometrics to protect the borders


In 2002, the US officially established biometrics at the heart of its new border security management practices when the President signed off the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. There is no shortage of explanations as to why the state turned to this new, private technology. Some emphasize the need to find the most efficient technology in a post-9/ 11 context of heightened insecurity and the ‘‘war on terror’’. Yet, while the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 may have legitimized it, they did not trigger the state’s turn to biometrics: the first large-scale use of biometrics by US law enforcement agencies occurred in fact at the January 2001 Superbowl in Tampa, Florida; and biometrics-based trusted traveller schemes have been in place at certain US airports since 1993 (Woodward, Orlans and Higgins 2003: 248-95). Other explanations underscore a general ‘‘rolling back’’ of the state where traditional military and defence functions are increasingly contracted out to the private sector, specifically in high-risk activities (Mandel 2002; Singer 2004; Avant 2005). This chapter considers, rather, what biometrics does for the state. It explores the specific ways in which, far from signalling a retreat of the state, the introduction of biometrics into traditional border protection practices reinforces not merely the governance capabilities of the state, but its power. For biometric borders appear as a perfect marriage of convenience: with states as their client (a situation that was generalized when the US imposed the biometric passport on the twenty-seven allied countries of the Visa Waiver Program in 2006), the biometric industry is booming, with its market doubling between 2005 and 2007 alone (Epstein 2007). States, for their part, see biometrics as the high-tech solution for managing the increasingly intractable terrorist risk (US Congress 2005). This particular convergence of state and new technology and the way it

has impacted on contemporary border protection practices is the focus of this chapter. To analyse it, it reads two logics against one another: the functional logic of the technology itself, and the political logic of the modern state. It proceeds in four movements. It begins, first, by examining the US border security programme, US VISIT, as the most extensive application of the new biometric technologies. The purpose here is not to condone any

kind of technological determinism (whereby the technology was adopted because of the efficiency gains it enabled in terms of maximizing border security), which would underplay the political significance of the state’s turn to biometrics. Nor is the concern to grasp the material or social conditions that have enabled the technology’s development. Rather, using the biometric engineering manuals, this first part unpacks the functional logic of biometric systems from the inside and on their own terms. The aim in this part is to critically examine both a technology and a literature that have so far remained largely beyond scrutiny. In a second movement, the chapter turns to read the use of biometrics

from the logic of the contemporary state. Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘‘governmentality’’ provides a starting point for contextualizing these new border protection practices. His analytics of power are especially useful for examining the type of politics unfolding in a context where the technologies of risk by which we are increasingly governed home in ever more closely upon the human body. Biometric systems in particular are deployed around particular representations of the human body. The two main distinct figures of the human body that feature at the centre of the new border protection systems are thus considered successively. This second part unpacks the construction of the foreign body underlying the US VISIT Program. This body intimately scrutinized at the US borders features not as the recipient of political rights, but as a live, mobile object. In a third movement, the chapter then examines the risky body, the figure at the core of biometric systems, and offers two successive, and in some ways contrary, readings of the state’s turn to biometrics. On a first level, the Foucauldian lenses highlight the development of biometric borders as a system of risk management geared towards embodying risk in the ‘‘risky body’’. They reveal how, in putting a body to the new face of risk, as it were, these new hightech border protection practices have reinforced the state, by establishing risk – in the form of the risky body – as the third term articulating the relationship between the state and its population. However, the fourth and final movement of the chapter analyses the figure of risky body as that which fundamentally escapes modern power: it marks the inconceivable, the blind spot on the radar of modern power.