Contributors. Carolina Alonso-Bejarano, Gregory Feldman, Francisco J. Ferrándiz, Daniel M. Goldstein, Ieva Jusionyte, Amade M’charek, Mark Maguire, Joseph P. Masco, Ursula Rao, Antonius C. G. M. Robben, Joseba Zulaika, Nils Zurawski
About the Author
Ursula Rao is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Leipzig.
Nils Zurawski is Senior Researcher and Visiting Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg.
Maguire and Zurawski are coeditors of The Anthropology of Security: Perspectives from the Frontline of Policing, Counterterrorism, and Border Control. Rao is author of News as Culture: Journalistic Practices and the Remaking of Indian Leadership Traditions.
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The Truth of the Error
Making Identity and Security through Biometric Discrimination
ELIDA K. U. JACOBSEN AND URSULA RAO
As moderns, our task and our obligation is to be attentive to ways around knowledge that claims to be universal when it is contingent, unified when it is at best partial, and autonomous and sovereign when it is dependent and immature.
— RABINOW, French Enlightenment: Truth and Life
"This had to be a fraud! Or could you imagine a family with over 100 members?," the quality assurance officer Amit Chatterjee asked rhetorically. What has happened? The computer at the central data-processing unit of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) showed an error. The automatic filter of the new biometric registration system highlighted more than 100 individuals as problematic because they had all been authorized by one single Head of Family (HoF), indicating that this person had proof of being directly related to each individual.
During an interview, he recounted in an animated fashion the story about how their initial astonishment concerning the extent of the fraud had turned into curiosity and, rather than cancelling the enrollments straight away, the team decided to travel to the region and find out what had happened. When they reached the distant border region in Mizoram, in the northeast of India, they found to their surprise the "biggest family in the world," totaling 184 members. "Can you imagine a man with 39 wives?" Amit repeated dramatically and continued to marvel at how enrollment for India's new biometric database has brought the team in touch with even the most remote people of India.
Today many countries are experimenting with biometric identification systems that use smart cards or central databases. With over 1.2 billion enrollments to date, India's aadhaar (Unique Identity, UID) is not only larger than any other similar project but is a "frontier case" that will influence developments in other countries, such as Indonesia or Papua New Guinea (Jacobsen 2012; Zelazny 2012; Gelb and Clark 2013b). According to the World Bank, it is also pioneering because it promises to achieve maximum interoperability by linking a national ID program to multiple sectoral interventions, such as welfare projects, security operations, or commercial applications (World Bank 2015). And indeed, the notion of interoperability captures well the ambition of the architects of UID, who launched the project in 2009 to provide a streamlined means of identifying India's entire population and linking millions to national digital networks of information. The system is meant to biometrically enroll all residents of India and give every person a unique twelve-digit identification number (aadhaar number) that is connected to a record containing their personal biometric data — fingerprints, iris scan data, and photograph — and to a skeleton set of social data — name, address, and gender. It can be used for online verification of identity at any time and any place. Proponents of UID are confident that the new technology will solve India's identification crisis by supplying reliable information to public and private service providers about who is who, thus making all transactions transparent and secure. Currently the aadhaar number is required for identification in most official contexts, such as applying for a passport, receiving welfare payments, or getting a bank loan. It can be used for instant activation of a SIM card, purchasing a train ticket, or conducting internet transactions (Bhatia and Bhabha 2017).
India's biometric project is participating in a global shift toward states using new digital technology in the management of population flows. The contemporary world capitalist system not only depends on the rapid flow of people and goods, but also produces heightened concerns over the unwanted movements of illegal migrants, terrorists, or smugglers, persons who may present a threat to national security and prosperity (Fuller 2003). Biometric technology provides automatized surveillance at crucial checkpoints in order to protect spaces of privileged sociality against unwanted entrants — in short, it is a means to separate "bad" flows from "good" flows (Aas 2006; Amoore 2006; Lebovic 2015; Amicelle and Jacobsen 2016). While surveillance studies scholars analyze the increased usage of networked biometric technologies in managing risks and contingencies (Amoore 2006; Muller 2011; Jacobsen 2013; Lidén, Boy, and Jacobsen 2016), development studies literature emphasizes the role and societal effect of biometric technology for creating more efficient and fraud-free welfare states (Rao 2013; Donovan 2015; Singh and Jackson 2017). The introduction of security logic into welfare contests follows on from neoliberal suspicion about wasteful states and worries over inefficient targeting, corruption, and leakage. By tracking goods and people, governments seek to undercut false reporting or "double dipping" — the illegal diversion of limited resources that impoverish states and contribute to distributional injustice. Regardless of whether biometric surveillance systems face inward or outward — that is to say, to include the undocumented or to exclude unwanted foreigners (Breckenridge 2014) — they fulfill a key purpose of making transactions traceable by employing a binary distinction. On the one side, there is the production of the documented person, the wanted traveler, or the needy citizen, which is mirrored on the other side by its opposite: the imposter, the fraud, or the criminal.
The attractive clarity of the binary logic of biometric classifications is disturbed every time technicians or users encounter an error. An error appears as a red warning on the screen when fingerprints are unreadable or recorded data appears as incoherent. The story from Mizoram is a case in point that was resolved positively, unlike many other cases of data errors that have led to rejections of aadhaar registration because applicants wishing to enroll have washed fingers, damaged irises, or unlikely names. The "failure to enroll" has its complement in the "false reject" of verification, another categorical error that does not register in the yes/no logic of automated surveillance. The technically rendered reading of body parts is unable to account for the calluses on the hands of a hardworking farmer wishing to access his or her biometric bank account, or to recognize poverty through the visual inspection of the worn, unbiometrifiable body of a beggar — more to the point, there is no room for the passionate stories of living people. From our ethnographic study of enrollment, we highlight how an individual status as "error" or "success" is, for the people concerned, a (new) form of social positioning that intersects or overwrites who they think they are or can be.
On the one hand, as the Indian project becomes interoperable and omnipresent, an identification error can deny and exclude individuals and families from entitlements and sociality. On the other hand, the new universal ID creates positive affirmations that can justify the undocumented immigrant or attach an address to the homeless laborer. In both cases of the "accept" or "reject," people's stories of living with biometrics demonstrate a contingent and unstable character of identity that may not adhere to the idealized truth of automated surveillance.
In this chapter, we read the ethnography of enrollment and early usage against the technical view of aadhaar as an efficient, reliable, neutral, and dispassionate means of sorting. We look at the acts of (biometric) registration and verification as practices that are founded on the idea of separating the truth from its error or fraud, in order to minimize the occurrences of the latter. In biometric governance, images of fingerprints and irises are "transported" to create certainty in relation to an individual's status, which in turn produces specific nexuses between bodies, persons, and identities that determine people's status vis-à-vis authorities, governments, or service providers. Yet, such "veridiction" of a bodily status takes place not in a valueless space of technological veracity, but rather in a dense social space saturated with visual information and narrative accounts. During biometric registration, and later at checkpoints of verification, the body and the appearance of the individual are continuously being regarded, problematized, and questioned, leading to a maze of visual, social, and technical information that may not cumulate in a coherent conclusion. As operators and users consider different types of evidence and prioritize information, they produce powerful narratives of identity.
The anecdote from Mizoram illustrates how accounting for citizens and giving out unique numbers intertwines judgments of integrity with narratives of identity. The filter of the quality management software picked up the decontextualized enrollment information because it contradicted standard expectations concerning family size, raising suspicion about fabrication and fraud. It could be discounted only when inspectors saw with their own eyes a man who lives with thirty-nine wives. They saw the narrowness of the "margin of error" in the face of the breadth of human sociality. The error demanded additional investigation that led to a final adjudication, fixing a particular truth and revealing the regime of truth production. The aadhaar enrollment system subsequently "knew" this man not only as a unique body, or a male of a certain age, but as a networked person holding the status for being the father and grandfather of over a hundred children and the husband of thirty-nine women. Moreover, in the process of sorting, the man became "abnormal" according to the programed norm of the system.
It is precisely through the negotiated margins of the established "error" that the biometric system produces truth. The system creates a norm against which errors can be measured. Errors are not just technical faults but also a means of producing expert truths about bodies and populations, which further give way to technical intervention and governmental planning. Therefore, rather than the error being an unintended consequence of the biometric system, we argue that the making of "errors" is a constitutive part of the established system of truth making. To evidence this, we begin with the narration of three cases of enrollments that exemplify how biometric technology repositions people in ways that contradict fundamental aspects of their identity. The troubling inconstancies of these biometric encounters provide an entry point for reflections on the social contexts where biometric technology operates and on the truth effects it produces. By truth effect, we mean a powerful statement of what will count as "truth." When truth in the form of biometric reading collides with other accounts or evidence of identity, it places people in a space of tension between error and truth. The negotiation of judgments resulting from biometric reading illuminates troubling exclusions and confirms prior findings that technology and its deployment in social situations produce specific forms of discrimination often along well-established lines of marginalization (Thomas 2014). Moreover, and more fundamentally, we argue that identity and fraud are interlaced categories and, accordingly, destabilize — and ultimately make incongruous — binary identification systems that seek to install a stable form of verification of personal identity by linking data to bodily markers using a yes/no logic.
On Technical Failure
The Dell computer screen is filled with the glaring brown-and-white image of an enlarged iris. The eye blinks, making large black stripes in slow movements on the screen before the image freezes as the eye is captured and quickly stored on the hard disk of the computer. The digitalization of her iris scan, together with fingerprints and facial image, ceremoniously marks the birth of Ananya's digital double. In a few weeks, she will receive a slip of paper that attests to the delivery of her data double, a name given by the Unique Identity Authority of India counting twelve numerical digits. Ananya gets up from the chair (a white plastic chair that had seen better days), adjusts her purple sari, and steps aside for the next one in line, her husband, Polas. He is not so lucky. The facial image is easily captured, but when he places his fingers on the biometric capture box, the computer refuses to agree with the status of his fingerprints. "Error." The letters appear repeatedly on the computer screen. After the third rejection, the young female operator in jeans and T-shirt looks at him. "Sorry, you cannot be registered." Whereas Ananya, his wife, is from East Bengal (today Bangladesh), it just happens to be that Polas himself is Indian. It is thus ironic that she now holds the digital key to potential entitlements by the Indian government, while he is being refused. The aadhaar number that he was attempting to register for would provide him with a proof of identity and address, and he is hoping that it will be an easier means to gain access to rights and entitlements for persons below the poverty line. Polas is a hardworking painter who works ten hours a day for an average wage of three thousand rupees a month (approximately fifty U.S. dollars), painting temple walls with low-quality paint. He works hard, mixing the liquid with his own hands, and oftentimes plucking old paint off temple walls with his bare fingers. No wonder his fingerprints are unreadable.
Technical errors are part of the enrollment process of India's national biometric system. Against the norm of the biometrically readable subject, concerns over the unbiometrifiability of bodies had surfaced before in the heated debates about the feasibility of aadhaar. In a report, Dr. R. Ramakumar, an expert witness before the Lok Sabha Finance Committee, stated that "it has been proven again and again that in the Indian environment the failure to enroll with fingerprints is as high as 15% due to the prevalence of a huge population dependent on manual labour" (Standing Committee 2011, 11). Others argue that the number is negligible (Nilekani and Shah 2015). The answer to the question of how many people might be excluded on account of poor biomaterial remains safely in the dark, since the aadhaar system only counts positively those who are registered and has no category to acknowledge the existence of people who have been rejected. Citizens resist this form of technical neglect by insisting on registration or seeking imaginative solutions. For example, Polas keeps himself busy making calls to his friend who knows a person willing to use creative solutions to enroll people into the aadhaar scheme in exchange for an under-the-table compensation of a hundred rupees by doing night shifts in the basement of one of the older temples in the town. At night, he enters a room filled with half-moldy paper and waits nervously for the computer to come up. Then, in a matter of a few minutes, his eyes are scanned, his picture is taken, and a clause is added regarding his exception that states that it is unmanageable to register more than a single thumbprint. With the enrollment slip in his hand, Polas is hopeful that he will receive his aadhaar card. He is not yet disillusioned as are others who tried enrolling many times to no avail, such as, for example Pratap.
Pratap lives in Hauz Khas in South Delhi with his son and daughter-in-law and their kids. He likes helping them out, but on a specific day in March 2016 he declines to pick up the kids from school because he urgently needs an aadhaar number and has high hopes that the recently opened enrollment center at the new branch of the Citizens' Bank will finally provide him with this new identity. It is his third attempt. The first time he went to a mass enrollment camp. He followed the prescribed routine and waited for his card. After six months, when the card had not arrived, he consulted, like Polas, a private broker who promised to help him in return for a hundred rupees. An online inquiry showed that Pratap's card had been rejected due to a "technical fault." The precise reason remains unclear. The broker took Pratap to another enrollment station, said all will be fine now, and vanished. "It was a rip-off!" Pratap thinks now. In his hand, he holds the enrollment slip of the second attempt that too yielded no positive result. Looking at it, it becomes obvious that the reading showed very low accuracy for several fingers. Might this be the reason for his rejection? Confronted with the question, Pratap shrugs his shoulder and continues his personal story. At this point, he takes off his sunglasses and exposes a missing eye, explaining that he lost it in a battle in Cargill. "I am a wounded soldier and have fought for the nation," he says proudly and without any sentimentality. Next, he takes out his army card and continues, "Here! See! This is the proof! I used to show this everywhere and it was always accepted. Now, no one wants to even see it. They are only interested in the aadhaar card."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bodies As Evidence"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: Bodies as Evidence / Mark Maguire and Ursula Rao 1
1. The Truth of the Error: Making Identity and Security through Biometric Discrimination / Elida Jacobsen and Ursula Rao 24
2. Injured by the Border: Security Buildup, Migrant Bodies, and Emergency Response in Southern Arizona / Ieva Jusionyte 43
3. E-Terrify: Securitized Immigration and Biometric Surveillance in the Workplace / Daniel M. Goldstein and Carolina Alonso-Bejarano 62
4. "Dead-Bodies-at-the-Border": Distributed Evidence and Emerging Forensic Infrastructure for Identificiation / Amade M'charek 89
5. The Transitional Lives of Crimes against Humanity: Forensic Evidence under Changing Political Circumstances / Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Francisco J. Ferrándiz 110
6. Policing Future Crimes / Mark Maguire 137
7. "Intelligence" and "Evidence": Sovereign Authority and the Differences that Words Make / Gregory Feldman 159
8. The Secrecy/Threat Matrix / Joseph P. Masco 175
9. What Do Your Want? Evidence and Fantasy in the War on Terror / Joseba Zulaika 201
Conclusion: Discontinuities and Diversity / Mark Maguire and Ursula Rao 228
What People are Saying About This
“This unique and unusually important book explains why the ‘body’—as both corporeal identity and as metaphor—has become so vital to understanding present-day security concerns, projects, and technologies. With its novel use of evidence-gathering and evidence-based knowledge both as a lens through which to critique the contemporary security state and as an organizing principle for the range of topics and cases covered, this book will be welcomed by anthropologists of security and policing, as well as sociologists, STS scholars, and others working on immigration and refugee issues, forensics, and war and technology.”
“This book gives new meaning to the anthropology of security. A scintillating, tightly knit collection, it illuminates, quite brilliantly, the core drama of our times, when radical uncertainty feeds a fetishism of evidence, when alt-authoritarianism breeds a strange new relativism and an insidious obsession with fakery. Those who live in these times seek variously to counter its terrors by perfecting their fix on truth and its elusive measures; above all they return, as modernity's children, to the ground zero of the human body, thus to anchor the indices of the real and the absolute.”