The rise of biodigital surveillance
Recently, as I was going through airport security, a saleswoman stopped me and asked if I wanted to skip the security line. Intrigued, I invited her to tell me more. She took me to the CLEAR electronic kiosk and explained how the product works. For just $180 per year, I could skip long lines at airports, sporting events and other large gatherings. The company's website explains, “Instead of using traditional IDs, CLEAR uses your eyes and face to verify that it's really you.” The CLEAR system uses not only iris scanning and facial recognition, but also other biometrics such as fingerprints associated with demographic data you voluntarily submit and a link to your credit score (read the fine print in the consent box). CLEAR also has a Health Pass which stores proof of vaccinations, negative Covid tests and health examinations.
CLEAR is not the only enterprise working at the intersection of biometric and digital authentication. Plans for digital IDs have been in the works for several years, but they gained momentum during the pandemic. ID2020 is a non-profit alliance founded in 2016 with seed capital from Microsoft, Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco and Gavi (a vaccine alliance founded by the Gates Foundation). ID2020's stated mission is to provide a digital identity for all people around the world by 2030. Digital IDs will be linked to fingerprints and other biometric data such as iris scans, demographic information, medical records, education data, travel, financial transactions and Bank accounts .
Almost two years ago Covid ID2020 published article, titled "Immunization: Digital Identity Entry Point". It claims that "Immunization presents a huge opportunity to scale digital identity." The article notes the cumbersome inefficiencies with paper immunization records and outlines how health challenges in developing nations can be used as a pretext for implementing digital IDs. A year earlier, Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, posted material in Nature , making the same argument: To achieve 100 percent vaccination rates in underdeveloped nations, we need digital IDs. Gavi promoted the same message at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos.
The ID2020 article attempted to articulate the benefits of this system as follows: “Since immunization takes place in infancy, providing children with a digital child health card will give them a unique, portable digital identity at an early age.” explains that “as children grow, their digital child health card can be used to access secondary services, such as primary school, or to facilitate the process of obtaining alternative credentials. In practice, the child's health card becomes the first step in establishing a legal, widely recognized identity.
At first glance, this may sound reasonable. But consider: If a poor family does not accept the health NGO's preferred interventions for their children, those children may not be given another opportunity to establish the "legal, widely recognized identity" needed to access things like elementary school. In other words, you are literally nobody until you are vaccinated.
Just before the outbreak of the pandemic, in September 2019, ID2020 partnered with Gavi and began implementing this plan in action. Using vaccines as leverage, she launched a biometrics-based digital identity program for newborns in Bangladesh. The country's government embraced the initiative. When the pandemic began, ID2020 pivoted immediately to incorporate digital identification into Covid testing and other pandemic measures.
India's biometric identity system, Aadhaar, is the largest on the planet, with 1.3 billion digital IDs issued, covering 92 percent of the population. It requires Indian citizens to submit their photograph, iris scan, and fingerprints to qualify for social services, benefits, compensation, scholarships, statutory rights, and food programs. According to article in Financial Times , "Indian media reported several cases of people without cards starving to death because they could not access the benefits they were entitled to." As the author notes, some critics argue that India's Aadhaar system has "largely failed to fulfill its original promise of improving welfare and now acts as a tool for social exclusion and corporate influence'.
The use of biometrics for everyday transactions has routinized these technologies. We condition children to take biometric verification as a matter of course. Face ID is already being used in multiple school districts to expedite the movement of students through school lunch lines. Until recently, biometric data, such as fingerprints, were only used for high security purposes – for example, in the prosecution of a crime or the notarization of an important document. Today, routine biometric verification for repetitive activities from cell phones to lunch lines accustoms young people to the idea that their bodies are instruments used in transactions . We instrument the body in subtle but powerful ways.
Those with economic interests in creating markets for their products—whether vaccines, digital surveillance products, or collected data—will continue to use the carrot and stick of access to medical care and other services to promote digital IDs in the underdeveloped. nations. In developed nations, they will initially take a velvet-glove-and-push approach, selling digital IDs as convenience and time-saving measures that will be hard for many to reject, such as skipping long Transportation Security Administration security lines at the airports. Privacy risks, including the possibility of constant surveillance and data collection, will fade into the background when you're about to miss your flight if you can't jump to the front of the queue.
But as Nick Corbishley, author of a recent book on digital IDs, points out, decisions made now can have long-term negative consequences: “If biometrics are hacked, there's no way to undo the damage. You cannot change or cancel your iris, fingerprint or DNA, any more than you can change your password or cancel your credit card. Unless we collectively opt out of this new social experiment, digital IDs linked to private demographic, financial, location, movement, and biometric data will become mechanisms for mass data collection and population tracking around the world. Welcome in the new abnormal .
Aaron Keriati is a fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, where he directs EPPC's Program on Bioethics and American Democracy. He is currently Head of Psychiatry and Ethics at Doc1 Health and head of medical ethics in The Unity Project , as well as Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Health and Human Flourishing Program at the Zephyr Institute . Dr. Keriati is also a scientist at The Paul Ramsay Institute and serves on the advisory board of The Simon Weil Center for Political Philosophy .