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The Biometric University: Administration, Surveillance, and Identification of Students in Campus Dining Halls

Sat, September 2, 9:00 to 10:30am, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Gardner B


In recent years, a number of universities in the United States have incorporated biometric technologies into the material design of student ID cards, the spatial layout of dining halls, and the software of meal plan systems. The use of biometric identification in these contexts is generally hallmarked by (i) the integration of students’ biometric data, including fingerprint, finger-vein, or iris scans, into student ID cards or a centralized database, and (ii) the implementation of dining hall access systems that include technologies such as biometric scanning devices, turnstiles, and software that performs transactions by linking students’ biometric data with their meal plan accounts.

This paper considers the introduction of biometric identification in university dining halls as part of a broader trend toward the incorporation of what are commonly considered as security and surveillance technologies into unexpected contexts. How and why does the biometric identification of students come to be thought of as a desirable technological intervention for the exigencies of university dining hall administration? By drawing upon ethnographic interviews and participant observation conducted at two universities in the northeastern United States, this paper traces the technology transfer of biometric identification across infrastructural, labor, financial, bureaucratic, and corporate networks entailed in university administrative activities and decisionmaking. While biometric identification technologies are integrated into extant university infrastructures and designed to fit the surveillant and administrative goals of “keeping track” of students and their meal plans, they also shape the spatial and subjective experiences of accessing, eating, and working in university dining halls.