16 March, 2015Issue 27.5HistoryPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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If Only Your Fingerprint Wasn’t Unique

Dominic Davies

Keith Breckenridge
Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present
Cambridge University Press, 2014
£65 (hardback)
270 pages
ISBN: 9781107077843

We are all accustomed to the concept of fingerprinting. It is a technique routinely used by the police that sometimes helps to catch criminals, and little else. This has been familiarised by numerous detective dramas and films, epitomised perhaps in the BBC’s rather ridiculous, but thoroughly entertaining, Silent Witness. However, this familiarity means that we don’t think about fingerprinting historically. We don’t wonder where it came from, nor do we realise how recent a phenomenon it is. Certainly, we don’t realise how dark its historical genealogy has been; we know nothing of the crucible of racist and colonial thought in which it was forged, the segregationist and apartheid context in which it was developed, and its current role in the assimilation of peripheral populations into the neoliberal, and highly unequal, world economy. If we did, we certainly wouldn’t view fingerprinting as nothing more than a useful tool for television detectives in their pursuit of serial killers. It is for this reason that Keith Breckenridge’s Biometric State is such an important contribution to knowledge. He tells a shocking story and foresees an ominous, though not irrecoverable future.

Fingerprinting is one of the most widely used “biometric” techniques, and it dominates Breckenridge’s narrative. It is not, however, the only one. Biometrics, or biometric governance, is the use of numerical representations of a pattern on the human body—most often fingerprints, but also irises or even faces—that, through the minutiae and specificity of their details, allow the unique identification of an individual within a very large human population. Interestingly, however, Breckenridge does not begin with a definition of “biometrics”, but rather of that other word in his title: the “state”. After a thankfully brief tour through the usual suspects (Hegel, Weber, Foucault), he arrives at a refreshingly material conception of the state, one that is “very much a thing, or, perhaps more accurately, […] a constellation of things: roads, hospitals, telecommunication lines, computers, filing cabinets, weapons”—the list goes on. But for Breckenridge, this material state is most physically “felt” by its citizens at the level of identification, which come together to form an “infrastructure of citizenship.” For those of us familiar with the bureaucratic tangle of renewing passports and applying for driving licenses, Breckenridge’s definition is clearly an accurate, if not a total one.

However, biometric governance sits in direct contrast to these written forms of identification, precisely because it does not require the citizen being identified to be literate. Because biometric systems of identification are based on physical attributes, they can be collected and collated without the individual citizen filling out any written documents. It is for this reason that the history of biometric governance is intimately entwined with imperialism. In India in the nineteenth century, Breckenridge explains, many peasants were illiterate. But by its very nature, colonial rule sought to categorise, know and control its colonised subjects. From around 1850, biometrics offered a way to gather huge masses of data on illiterate colonised populations, producing archives that helped to sustain imperialism’s hegemony over them. However, it is not India that is at the heart of Breckenridge’s story, but rather South Africa. In this region, with its astonishingly turbulent history over the last century and a half, biometrics have been developed and implemented in a range of increasingly sinister ways.

The contexts of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid provided a unique hotbed for these developments. South Africa, especially during the apartheid era, is often seen by academics as somehow “outside” of global history because of its extremely distinct mode of governance, not to mention the restrictions placed on its geopolitical agency with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. However, as Breckenridge shows, South Africa’s specific mode of biometric governance has been exported, in recent decades, to many other parts of the globe. In turn, Breckenridge’s tracing of the development of biometrics is also central to many of the distinctive motions of South Africa’s own history, from its racist colonial governance and the rise of mining capitalism to the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprising, as well as into the post-apartheid era. Breckenridge thus looks both inwards and outwards, linking specific geohistorical events to the trajectory of a wider global politics.

Whilst South Africa is in many senses the book’s central protagonist, it is Francis Galton who is its main historical agent. After travelling to South Africa in the 1850s, Galton wrote a number of texts, throughout the remainder of the century, in which he formulated the concept of eugenics. His thinking, adopted and propounded by social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer, laid important foundations for the increasing jingoism of imperial rule, the Nazi regime’s catastrophic ideology, and the segregationist and apartheid policies in South Africa. Galton’s writing even corrupted Darwin himself, skewing the humanitarian project that had underpinned The Origin of the Species into the notions of racial hierarchy that surfaced in his later works, most notably The Descent of Man. Whilst this eugenicist history is quite widely known, Galton’s pioneering work on fingerprints as physical attributes unique to individual human beings, and the subsequent ability to regulate populations with such biometric data, is not. It was Galton’s fascination with the physical manifestations of racial difference, refracted through gross racial stereotyping and hierarchical evolutionary theories, that led him to the discovery of fingerprinting as a method of identification.

From his opening chapter on Galton, Breckenridge takes his reader on a journey through South Africa’s increasingly warped uses of biometric governance, one that remains disturbingly linked to systems of racial segregation and discrimination throughout. The first attempt at a total implementation of biometric governance was, however, a complete failure, in large part due to a coordinated campaign of resistance to it. In response to the government’s attempts to gather the fingerprints of every male Indian immigrant that arrived in South Africa in the early twentieth century, a young lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi burned his passbook publicly, encouraging other Indian immigrants to do the same. The result was a successful defiance of biometric governance, one that honed Gandhi’s techniques of satyagraha that would, of course, come to play a fundamental role in India’s independence from the British Empire. Biometric governance was crucial in the formation of Gandhi’s ideology, a perspective developed in response to the use of biometrics to carve out a racially defined state, and that culminated in his Hind Swaraj, arguably one of the most important anti-imperial texts of the twentieth century—an example of just one of the impacts that ricocheted out of South Africa and into global history during this period.

As Breckenridge shows, biometric governance was almost always doomed to fail. In an age before computers, managing these masses of data required such absurdly complex archival systems that they were completely unsustainable. Perhaps the highlight of Breckenridge’s narrative is his chapter on the “Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Passes Act,” introduced by the then newly elected apartheid government in 1952, and undertaken by A.J. Turton, the author of a pamphlet that outlined the architecture of what would become the infamous “passbook”—a document carried by all black South Africans during the apartheid years and that has become eerily symbolic of its repressive governance. The effort to create this centralised biometric data system is truly astonishing, and highlights the levels of obsessive racial ideology and paranoia that fuelled the apartheid government. Rather than having decentralised regional offices, Turton orchestrated this project from one “Central Identity Bureau” in Pretoria, an institution that rings with Orwellian overtones. The passbooks were distributed as government teams attempted (and, it should be stressed, repeatedly failed) to collect the fingerprints of every single member of the black adult population of 250 million. The project was ridiculous: even if all the fingerprints had been collected, it would have taken 66 highly trained fingerprint experts processing 30 fingerprints per day simply to keep a tab on the growing number of South Africa’s sixteen year olds. In addition, the passbooks were repeatedly defaced, and passes and fingerprints cut out and swapped, subversive actions that caused the Bureau to descend into a state of chaos. Breckenridge paints a picture of a desperately fraught and disorganised apartheid government even at the height of its hegemony, a reassessment that productively runs against the grain of most academic studies of this period.

Despite the strong historical intersection between biometrics and systems of racial oppression and control, Breckenridge’s book finishes with an account of the very different way that these mass data archives are being used in the twenty-first century. Aided by advances in computer technology, biometric databases have been rolled out in South Africa and across the rest of the African continent, as well as India and parts of Latin America, ostensibly not to surveil populations but rather to enable contemporary versions of the welfare state. Illiterate rural populations in countries of the Global South receive welfare payments, obtain credit and sign up to pensions by using biometric forms of identification (mostly still fingerprints) to set up bank accounts. In societies where civil registration is undeveloped and uneven—most often those of postcolonial countries—biometrics allows governments to collect information on its disparate citizenry. This has the potential to do a great deal of good, liberating parts of the population that would otherwise slip through the welfare net of postcolonial governments, thereby helping to lift them out of poverty.

However, Breckenridge is not so optimistic. When thoroughly historicised, contemporary biometric governance can just as easily be seen as a way to “capture the unbanked,” integrating them into the neoliberal economy and subjecting them to its increasingly severe inequalities. The fact that literacy is no longer necessary for citizens to participate in government bureaucracy clearly has a democratic potential. But it also means that the need to educate these populations loses its imperative, a ramification that is just as likely to disempower them as political actors. Furthermore, whilst objections to biometric governance as an invasion of privacy has prevented it taking hold in countries in the Global North, those countries nevertheless continue to collect biometric data from the immigrant and asylum seeking populations that arrive at their borders. Contemporary biometric archives are inscribed with the imbalances in global power that were shaped over a century ago during the age of imperialism. Given current anxieties around methods of surveillance, intensified by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, we would do well to listen to Breckenridge’s story of the biometric state, sharing his vigilant observation that terrifying histories often have outgrowths that we are only just beginning to understand. Just as we are repeatedly warned to increase our privacy settings and encrypt our emails, reading Biometric State suggests we would do well to think twice about giving away our fingerprints.

Dominic Davies recently submitted his DPhil thesis in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.