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The Meanings of Biometrics, and their Consequences I

Fri, December 9, 11:00am to 1:00pm CST (11:00am to 1:00pm CST), Building D, D005


All biometric systems rely on measurements of the human body. Yet, biometric data hold different meanings across infrastructures, times, and places. Experts, policymakers, publics, and people subjected to biometric identification impute different meanings to biometric data and differentially experience their deployments. For example, late 19th-century anthropologists and statisticians saw biometric measurements as evidence of eugenic notions of heredity, racial degeneracy, and criminality. Similar meanings resonate in the ways contemporary biometric systems classify, and reinforce inequalities related to, race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, disability, and nationality. Beliefs in biometrics’ “uniqueness” have driven their applications in policing, colonial administration, state governance, and the quantified self movement. Such beliefs also obscure how biometric identification fails, and the human consequences of these failures. Biometric data can be used to exonerate the wrongly accused, identify the dead, or promote recognition by the state. Yet, the same kinds of data can be used to single out marginalized communities for surveillance, and delineate citizenship, borders, and access to government services.

This panel inquires into the multiple meanings of biometric data. It attends to the ways these meanings mutually shape the designs and purposes of biometric systems, their societal impacts, and the lived experiences of people included and excluded from them. These meanings and their consequences shift – but also persist – within and across historical, geographic, infrastructural, and technological contexts. This panel welcomes papers that critically examine this interpretive flexibility of biometric data, and its implications for past and present biometric systems around the world.

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