Hidden in immigration reform, vast biometrics plan

The bill under debate in the Senate contains a proposal mandating a massive database of every adult American

By Natasha Lennard

Published May 10, 2013 2:04PM (EDT)


The very concept of population is one of a certain type of control -- namely the mechanisms through which certain groups get to be counted as among, or outside the population. Indeed, to be part of a population -- further, a citizenry -- is to be countable, databased. It should come as no surprise then, that tucked into the proposed immigration reform bill currently under debate in the Senate is a mandate for ensuring every American is identified, counted and countable constantly. As Wired noted Friday, "Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation (.pdf)  is language mandating the creation of the innocuously-named “photo tool,” a massive federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID."

The aim of the database would be to ensure that employers did not employ illegal immigrants -- the would have to check new hires in the database to verify that they match their photo. Privacy advocates have, however, expressed concern for the creeping use of biometrics and enforced identification in every aspect of American life. Wired reports:

Privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet. Think of it as a government version of Foursquare, with Big Brother cataloging every check-in.

“It starts to change the relationship between the citizen and state, you do have to get permission to do things,” said Chris Calabrese, a congressional lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “More fundamentally, it could be the start of keeping a record of all things.”

The privacy advocate's concerns are apt, but fail to point out that such a vast biometrics database is just the latest technology -- following from passports, Social Security numbers and the like -- to illustrate that inherent to the very concept of population are mechanisms of counting and checking. Which sorts of checks we find unacceptable and violating is then the question we have to ask. That we -- as citizens, as a population -- are checkable and countable should be well understood.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Biometrics Illegal Immigrants Immigration Immigration Reform Population Senate