Biometric Stereotyping: A Tool of Oppression

Upon reading both of the Zach Blas articles, along with viewing the video “Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face (2012),” I can honestly say I am quite horrified at the discoveries made by these researchers. I have never really thought about the concept of biometrics and facial recognition, and even when I did think about these topics it was in the realm of specific facial recognition (such as with the most recent iPhone series), and not as a tool of categorization and oppression. Although it is true that you may find differences in human body types based on genetics, that does not mean these technologies should be made to ignore features of diverse bodies.

Blas addresses specific failures in terms of biometric technology’s inability to include diverse features when he explains: “Asian women’s hands fail to be legible to fingerprint devices; eyes with cataracts hinder iris scans; dark skin continues to be undetectable; and non-normative formations of age, gender, and race frequently fail successful detection” (Blas). When I was getting ready to start working within schools during my undergraduate degree, it was required that I get fingerprinted so that this personal biometric information was in the system. I didn’t connect that idea that the size of the scanner used would not have been practical for someone with smaller hands than I. These devices are used every single day, around the whole world, yet they are not built to accommodate the realistic world, the people we see walking past us on the streets of our neighborhoods.

Iris scanners falling short when it comes to cataracts very directly oppresses Black and Hispanic individuals for they make up a majority of those who develop cataracts at some point in their lives. Lastly, we (hopefully) do not even need to discuss how facial recognition failing to identify dark skin falls under the category of oppressive. Blas also discusses how there are claims that these facial scanners can determine characteristics of the person below the surface of their skin, such as gender and sexuality. I would like to point out how wrongful and dehumanizing it is to categorize physical human features into such general groups. As someone who is a biracial person of color, I carry features of both my Dominican father and my English & Irish mother. So put me in front of a facial recognition scanner, what exactly will come up? Or will it just get confused? Encoding the device in this manner feels almost colonial. It reads faces and other bodily features and provides information that attempts to keep human beings separated as if members of different species.

I used the term “colonial” because of the way this mode of thinking resonates with segregation and slavery.  Blas also wrote about how once the facial biometric diagrams were fabricated, the metal replicated what appeared to be facial cages similar to that of handcuffs, prison bars, and torture devices used during Medival times and slavery in the United States (Blas). The images of the face cages are incredibly discomforting but definitely powerful. This is where Blas begins to intersect with a point made  by Simone Browne in her essay “Race and Surveillance.” Dating all the way back to slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the USA, slaves would be cataloged as a form of “disciplinary power” (Browne 73). Browne continues to explain how this disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility, whilst simultaneously imposing a compulsory visibility on its targets. This concept links to the idea of these oppressive systems being invisible to those of us who are unaffected by their tyranny. All while these same oppressive systems that are in place exist as daily and active thoughts in the lives of those who are affected. I think it’s important to not be ambivalent about these oppressive technologies solely because it does not concern you directly. If it affects a people of any demographic in a negative manner,  it should become a priority to fight for a positive change with the goal of reaching true equality.