The Social and Ethical Implications of Biometrics

 What are biometrics[i] exactly?  In today’s information driven society in which the greatest tool of information dissemination, the Internet, has become the home of disinformation, conspiracy theories and personal opinions packaged as authoritative fact it is necessary to define exactly what the term biometrics means so that the consequences of implementing the worldwide use of biometrics can even be reasonably discussed.  So what are biometrics?  Well a biometric or biometric identifier is an objective measurement of a physical characteristic of an individual which, when captured in a database, can be used to verify the identity or check against other entries in the database (Youmaran & Adler, 2012). The best known biometric is the fingerprint, but with technology moving forward in leaps and bounds there are many other forms such as facial recognition software, retinal scans, DNA analysis, voice recognition, and even odor sensitivity (Youmaran & Adle,, 2012).  Biometrics are quickly becoming the ultimate tool in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller and more and more interconnected globally, a grand family where all the various members are linked together by computer technology, information and science in ways previously unimaginable at any other point in human history. From a purely technical perspective it is of course very possible at this point to establish a center to store biometric data and to test and evaluate biometric technologies but there are many legal, technical, ethical issues and sociocultural issues which must be first addressed with respect to any future implementation of biometrics, especially with respect to individual privacy and the scope to which the organizations collecting this data would have access and some form of control over an individual’s biometrics which are far more private and revealing than any government issued ID number (Lodge, 2012). As the technology becomes more and more a reality, these concerns must be addressed if society and the world in general is to quickly come to an informed consensus as to how this technology should be used and to establish extremely strong checks, balances and controls in order to limit potential abuses and the inevitable ethical violations which surely will arise.  In the end humanity must ask itself how much of ourselves do we need to share with the rest of the world?  When has connectivity gone too far?

            James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and the founding father of the Human Genome Project declared that “we used to think our fate was in the stars.  Now we know a large part of it is in our genes (Horgon, 2003, p197).”  The Human Genome Project was hailed as one of the greatest achievements in this century because coupled with new medical technologies such as gene therapy, stem cell research, and prenatal medicine, the possibility to “improve” the human race became a possibility.  Pharmaceutical companies began to actually patent the rights to certain genes in an effort to control the lucrative market that was rapidly rising in treating illnesses at the genetic level, and litigation quickly began flying through the court system as to whether or not a gene could [ii]be owned (Horgan, 2003).  In much the same way the use of biometrics raises a possibility that whole classes of people will be marginalized because things that were previously private would be revealed.  For example, even though certain individuals carry the gene for Muscular Dystrophy and phenotypically speaking are perfectly healthy, because the public now would have access to their DNA profile these individuals would become less desirable as a potential mates.  Potential employers could reject individuals’ applications for employment for fear that their medical insurance costs would rise, or that these individuals would have to take many sick days despite the fact that phenotypically they did not suffer from the illness. In a world where people’s identities are stolen every hour, how could core biological information such as this be safeguarded?  The fact is once Pandora’s box is opened it cannot be closed, and even with safeguards and ethical checks and balances in place human laws often do not take into account human nature.

 Part of the allure of using biometrics to categorize and organize our world in further depth is that our bodies (unlike any sort of physical documentation no matter how sophisticated) can provide an objective and verifiable source of truth about our identities, our genetics and even our psychology and it is these technologies which are believed to give access to this inseparable part of humanity (Martin & Whitley, 2013).  Biometrics are also believed to be capable of securing or fixing identity in a way that makes fraudulent or multiple identities much more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Through the use of biometrics, organizations aim to individuate entire populations and then fix identities to administrative markers such as unique identification numbers [iii](Ackerman, 2012). The concern that the unethical use of biometrics against vulnerable individuals for the benefit of others becomes a very real concern.  To minimize this concern there must be some sort of national if not international body to shoulder the onus of maintaining any potential database and even then, cross-cultural difficulties and barriers will no doubt affect just what is considered a violation of privacy and what is considered to be acceptable level of transparency when it comes to collecting the biological information needed for biometrics to work (Youmaran & Adler, 2012).  Of course the administrative burden would be greatly reduced by biometrics, since a person’s identity would be established by their body itself and not by various pieces of documentation, and thus the cost to the taxpayers for the organizations which must maintain these records would be greatly reduced (Lodge, 2012).  Imagine a world with no more long DMV lines because all your information could be coded into a database, based upon your own biology.  No need to renew a license when your own body functions as your license.  The term inter-operability best describes what proponents of this technology are trying to achieve.  With the simple implantation of a RFID chip subcutaneously coded with an individual’s biological information that is unique to them, all their banking, medical, travel, and commercial and cross-border information  becomes easily manageable (Lodge, 2012). In this mind set the many concerns that most citizens raise are batted aside with the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear from this technology.

            In conclusion, biometrics is not just another technology that the average ignorant person automatically resists, as is natural to humanity because it represents a change in the fundamental way that we live and interact with the world and each other.  As the world becomes smaller and smaller and the population continues to grow, individual privacy will begin to mean that much more than it did a few decades ago as we become forced to be connected to others in ways that we perhaps neither envisioned nor wanted.  Because of this it is very important that the debate about biometrics remain very much in the public spotlight and that those advocating or criticizing its use have an open forum in which to air their views in a way that the public, who will be most dramatically affected by the implementation of this technology, have the opportunity to make an informed decision on what could be the last time that we as a species are truly multicultural and diverse.  Without ethical, sociological and legal oversight this technology has the potential to change this world but in ways that no one will able to predict.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Ackerman, S.  (2012). U.S. holds onto biometric databases of 3 million Iraqis.  Wired, December 21.  Retrieved from

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/12/iraqi-biometrics-database

Horgan, J.  (2003). Eugenics revisited.  Scientific American, 269(6), 122-131.

Lodge, J.  (2012). The dark side of biometrics: accommodation, ethics and new biometrics.                        International Library of Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2, 305-328.

Martin, A., K., & Whitley, E., A.  (2013). Fixing identity?  Biometrics and the tensions of            material practices.  Media, Culture and Society, 35(1), 52-60.

Youmaran, R., & Adler, A.  (2012). Measuring biometric sample quality in terms of biometric       feature information in the iris image.  Journal of Electrical and Computer Engineering, 1, 1-9.


[i] The term biometrics comes from branch of biology that studies biological phenomena and observations by means of statistical analysis but has evolved into use as the definition given at the beginning of this paper.

[ii] There are 3,000–5,000 U.S. patents on human genes and 47,000 on inventions involving genetic material.  There is at present a patent reform bill passed by the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate; there is also a bipartisan bill to ban gene patenting.

[iii] This system is actively in use in the modern military.  The “dog tag” has been replaced with RFID chips ostensibly so that even the smallest body part will be able to be identified.

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Tell me why

So why should I succumb to fires

Of long summer days and hot desires

On what cool cave shall I depend?

To which cold fountain shall I bend.

Instead I look to ease the pain

That remedies cannot contain

The moisture of my tears confessed

So helpless in her frozen breast.

Tell me why

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35.  There are many thoughts that have entered my weary head with a pinpoint precision designed to pierce the misty veil of complacency that often covers my brain with its sticky nonsense, so sweet to lick and terrifying to touch.  The inconsistencies that I see in the mirror have trapped me in a model world where idiots are the intellectuals and fools are the great kings and queens who will rule this world beyond the mirror.  I am constantly nauseous with the foolish babbling of the morons who rule my world and often I find myself vomiting out the contents of my ponderous thought, so heavy with the burden of a sanity born from the desperation that only stupidity can bring.  With talented hands I rip the lacy gauze which threatens to smother my perfect philosophy, my naked spirituality and the mighty metaphysics that have so succored me all these long years when I wandered the world as a poor man.  Without its opaqueness blinding me I am able to see the truth that has hidden inside the many crease and crevasses of a mind in turmoil, laying there dormant and dreary, dead to the world that needs its silly wisdom, its maniacal mysteries that hold the many secrets foretold by the great eye that sees the true world hidden in the mirror.  And they are many, these myriad pinpricks in the darkness of society’s great mysteries, which having been eternally beholden to a greater system in which there can be no secrets, and they cough up gladly their rich and undiscovered phlegm and spit it out upon the surface of the mirror for us to examine carefully.  So I delve deeper than I had ever thought possible, searching for the answer to that question that will not give me the solace which most penitents seek but instead will give me the passionate aching that only tragedy and turmoil can give and subduing my divine spark while mastering the humanity which dwells so deeply within  me.  No longer will I seek the peace and salvation that humanity has strived for throughout existence because I have seen a great truth; I am what I am.  There will be no transmogrification, no great metamorphoses to transform me from this blessed state into some greater being who is master of his own destiny.  In the great descent that life’s grand journey forces us to undertake, I have seen a vision of the world in slumber and it dreams of the mighty flesh and the pleasures that being alive can only bring.  It is a message of hope for the true seeker, a beacon to the essential truth that lies distant, though not so far if one truly searches along the great and serpentine path that lies just to the left of the illuminated path into the heart of the mirror.

Dialogue #34

Discussion questions

2.  How does gender and race impact who you are?

                Unfortunately we live in a world that is more defined by its differences than its common humanity.  Race and gender are two the greatest differences used to foster differences which in reality are non-existent.   From a young age we have roles forced upon us because of our gender or race and in some cases, both, roles which do end up not only impacting but also defining the roles that we ultimately will end up accepting because society has decreed it so.  A Caucasian woman in the US will have a very different view of the world compared to an Arab woman in Saudi Arabia because of the freedoms and possibilities she enjoys because of the basic tenets of American society.  Yet if that Arab woman was to immigrate to the US, she would most likely feel very uncomfortable with certain American notions, and retreat to Arab community in the US and continue to practice certain behaviors that were expected of her in Saudi Arabia, but which are considered barbaric here.  Even in places such as England or Italy there remains quaint notions about the position of women in society and despite these being developed nations the impact still remains great upon women in these cultures.

                As long as the majority of the people of this world still believe in archaic and disgusting notions of race it will remain one of the most divisive and destructive ideas today.  In Darfur, Sudan, the northern neighbors raid southerners for slaves, in the belief that they are somehow superior despite the fact they are both dark skinned peoples.  Yet for the southern children their world is enormously impacted by the fact that they must worry about being enslaved because of their race, and thus race is has the greatest impact upon their world.  In the US, African-American children are nurtured with the expectation of being musicians or athletes, because the racial stereotypes developed in the US have become the norm.  It is as self-fulfilling prophecy that can only happen as long these racial stereotypes continue.  As a result, African-American children do not see education as a way to success, but instead they look to the role placed upon them by the pressures ad divisions of race.  In the end gender and race push us into molds that world around us has made for us.

 

 

Ethics

                Ethics are not a magical set of rules and standards which appeared in human society as if born in a vacuum and unleashed upon us like the primal light of creation.  Instead, ethics are standards governing our conduct which have been pieced together by the various cultures which make up humanity across the world.  Much like a jigsaw puzzle they have been pieced together over time and as we come to complete the tableau we begin to see who we are and what we believe reflected in its canvas and in ourselves.

Just what exactly is the meaning of ethics?  This definition is a little more difficult to pin down because there are so many things which seem like ethics but are not.  For example, ethics have nothing to do with ones feelings, even though many confuse ethics with their feelings.  A person following his or her feelings often will not do what is right, because feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.  Neither should ethics be identified with religion, despite the fact that most religions advocate high moral standards.  Ethics cannot be tied to religion because this would mean that they only apply to religious people.  Whether one worships at the altar of a specific religion or not, is quite irrelevant because the atheist can be just as ethical a person as the high priest.

Another misconception about ethics is that the law is always ethical.  History alone has shown us the untruth in this way of thinking, as we look at the various unjust laws enacted in the past, from the laws empowering the Inquisition, to the apartheid laws in South Africa and even the present day Patriot Act, with its provision for the legal use of torture.  Despite their immorality, these laws were and are accepted by the citizens of these nations.  Following the law should never be confused with being ethical.  On the same note, following what a society accepts is not ethical either.  In WW2 the entire populace of Germany stood by and did nothing while the Nazis decimated a race of people, because they felt that they had to follow what society seemed to accept.  As a result an evil that could and should have been stopped was allowed to flourish and ultimately still haunts the world to this day.

So back to the question of what are ethics?  Ethics are, simply put, well-founded standards of right and wrong which prescribe what human beings ought to do.  In terms of obligations and benefits to society, fairness and virtues, and the right to life and all that comes with it.  Also, if one does not study the development of ethics then one will not evolve with the times because ethical standards do change with time and the influence of other cultures.    So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s ethics to make sure they are reasonable and strive to live up to the standards that are good and solidly based.

And what pray tell does my most recent diatribe have to do with creativity you ask? Well if you have to ask then unfortunately you will never know.Image

Ethics and Creativity

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Look at a child’s index finger and thumb

So gentle a vise

Even bread is astonished

Utterly good, perhaps

That Hand has killed a bird

And trembles with its final spasm

Its quick, weasel-like denial that would stop it

But who stops it?

This gap in our ruined heart

Do not dare name them, those half-Gods

Hardly one allowed in our dark nothings…

Youth is wasted on the young

They say that if you die in a dream then you die in real life, but how does anyone know the truth of it? For obvious reasons those who have found it to be true, well they’d be dead right? That is what I thought but now I am not so sure. I had a dream last night that I died, or more accurately I was killed and buried and I watched myself from outside of my body being autopsied, embalmed and buried. what was interesting is that it was most certainly me, I felt the pain of my murder, I felt the rage for vengeance but most importantly I knew categorically that I was dead, that I had died in my dream. Yet here I am writing this blog alive, disturbed certainly but alive nonetheless. perhaps it was a premonition? I certainly hope not, because though I don’t fear dying or that which is beyond death, i still have a few more paintings left in me so I am not quite ready to go yet. Who knows maybe I already am dead and this is my after life. Food for thought, though I must say that my source of nourishment is suspect.