Report: Biometrics

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  Identity vs. Identification

It has become a commonplace observation that the history of modernity has been accompanied by what one might call a general weakening of identity, both as a theoretical concept and as a social and cultural reality. This blurring of identity has come to full fruition in the 20th century. As a theoretical concept, identity has lost its metaphysical foundation of "full correspondence" following the destruction of metaphysics by thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Witgenstein or Davidson. Nietzsche's "dead god", his often-quoted metaphor for the demise of metaphysics, has left western cultures not only with the problem of having to learn how to think without permanent foundations; it has left them with both the liberty of constructing identities, and the structural obligation to do so. The dilemmas arising out of this ambivalent situation have given rise to the comment that "god is dead, and men is not doing so well himself". The new promise of freedom is accompanied by the threat of enslavement. Modern, technologically saturated cultures survive and propagate and emancipate themselves by acting as the gatekeepers of their own technological prisons.

On the social and cultural levels, traditional clear-cut identities have become weakened as traditional cultural belonging has been undermined or supplanted by modern socio-technological structures. The question as to "who one is" has become increasingly difficult to answer: hybrid identities are spreading, identities are multiple, temporary, fleeting rather than reflecting an inherited sense of belonging. The war cry of modern culture industry "be yourself" demands the impossible and offers a myriad of tools all outcompeting each other in their promise to fulfil the impossible.

For many, identity has become a matter of choice rather than of cultural or biological heritage, although being able to chose may not have been the result of a choice. A large superstructure of purchasable identification objects caters for an audience finding itself propelled into an ever accelerating and vertiginous spiral of identification and estrangement. In the supermarket of identities, what is useful and cool today is the waste of tomorrow. What is offered as the latest advance in helping you to "be yourself" is as ephemeral as your identification with it; it is trash in embryonic form.

Identity has become both problematic and trivial, causing modern subjects a sense of thrownness and uprootedness as well as granting them the opportunity of overcoming established authoritarian structures. In modern, technologically saturated societies, the general weakening of identities is a prerequisite for emancipation. The return to "strong" clear-cut "real" identities is the way of new fundamentalism demanding a rehabilitation of "traditional values" and protected zones for metaphysical thought, both of which are to be had only at the price of suppression and violence.

It has become difficult to know "who one is", but this difficulty is not merely a private problem. It is also a problem for the exercise of power, for the state and other power institutions also need to know "who you are". With the spread of weak identities, power is exercised in a different manner. Power cannot be exercised without being clear who it addresses; note the dual significance of "subject". A weakened, hybrid undefined subject (in the philosophical sense) cannot be a "good" subject (in the political sense), it is not easy to sub-ject. Without identification, power cannot be exercised. And while identification is itself not a sufficient precondition for authoritarianism, it is certainly a necessary one.

Identities are therefore reconstructed using technologies of identification in order to keep the weakened and hence evasive subjects "sub-jected". States have traditionally employed bureaucratic identification techniques and sanctioned those who trying to evade the grip of administration. Carrying several passports has been the privilege of spies and of dubious outlaws, and not possessing an "ID" at all is the fate of millions of refugees fleeing violence or economic destitution. Lack of identification is structurally sanctioned by placelessness.

The technisised acceleration of societies and the weakening of identities make identification a complicated matter. On the one hand, bureaucratic identification techniques can be technologically bypassed. Passports and signatures can be forged; data can be manipulated and played with. On the other hand, traditional bureaucratic methods are slow. The requirements resulting from these constraints are met by biometric technology.

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0   Identity vs. Identification
+1   Identificaiton in history
+2   Biometric technologies
+3   Face recognition
Biometrics applications: privacy issues