"privacy is necessary for human progress"
Currently, legal identity is evidenced by government-issued paper documentation – passports, ID cards, physical confirmations of citizenship or other legal status (e.g. asylum seeker). The global dependence on flimsy physical identification methods puts many at risk. If documents are lost, you cannot prove who you are. Destroying the papers of their client-victims is common practice in the multi-million dollar industry of human trafficking. Many individuals exploit the possibilities of faking or destroying their own identity too. Migrants who are eligible to regularise their status encounter huge difficulties associated with bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, cost and corruption.
For these reasons, the UNHCR is already collecting biometrics. Their programmes have introduced iris scanning in refugee camps, especially for the identity-less groups most at risk of exploitation, such as unaccompanied children. This puts individuals on the map, giving them a core biological identity, a proof of existence, of which they cannot be stripped. Medical history and other helpful data can be shared; reconnecting refugees with friends and family is easier.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.
“The fact that you won’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of pervasive surveillance,” reiterates security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman and in the cybersecurity program of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Government and International Affairs. “Governments, of course, know this. China bases its surveillance on this fact. It wants people to self-censor, because it knows it can’t stop everybody. The idea is that if you don’t know where the line is, and the penalty for crossing it is severe, you will stay far away from it. Basic human conditioning.” The effectiveness of surveillance at preventing crime or terrorism can be debated, but “if your goal is to control a population,” Schneier says, “mass surveillance is awesome.”
We quantify ourselves using pedometers, oximeters, stopwatches, obsessive journaling, and increasingly sophisticated technology to track every knowable piece of data that our bodies and our selves can spit out. These numbers can bring comfort, and they can bring real understanding, not just of REM cycles and caloric intake, but of what it means to be, precisely, us.
Sophie Calle, The Hotel