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Fingerprints and Breath: The Rise of Biometric Screening


Once upon a time, you were born. You traveled through time and space to breathe your first breath of air and emerge from a glorious womb. You contained a higher intelligence — it was yours, absolutely free. So was your DNA; your unique facial features, the depth in your eyes, and fingerprints as precise as the crystal edges of snowflakes. You had no idea what was coming.

Recently, according to the Washington Post, in one of the world’s largest and fastest efforts to collect biometric information, Pakistan has ordered cellphone users to verify their identity through fingerprints for a national database. If users don’t give up their prints, their mobile phone service will be shut off, leaving many with little choice but to offer their fingerprints. The government claims this information is being collected to curb terrorism, but some Pakistanis wonder how mobile phone fingerprint “verification” will bring peace.

Biometrics is the measuring and analysis of certain physical attributes such as facial features, voice or retinal scans. This technology can be used to define an individual’s unique identity, often for security purposes. Countries such as South Africa and India have taken enormous steps to collect this sort of biometric data. For example, India’s database is able to accommodate more than 12 billion fingerprints, 2.4 billion iris scans and 1.2 billion photographs.

If you think this sort of collection doesn’t take place in the US, you are mistaken. In 2012, the US visa program contained a biometric data base of almost 120 million among other collections. According to the ACLU, in California, anyone who is arrested for a felony must provide a DNA sample that will then be stored in a criminal database accessible to local, state, national, and international law enforcement agencies. Devin Schindler, a constitutional law professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School shares with the Capitol News Service that, “the government is essentially collecting a blueprint of (a) life.”

The irony is, it doesn’t necessarily take a government mandated requirement for us to give up personal information of this kind. It is given freely, everywhere. Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology told the Washington Post, ”if you have a driver’s license, a passport and a Facebook account, you are likely enrolled in at least three different facial recognition databases.” Mobile phones have the “convenient” security feature of a fingerprint scan to unlock your cellphone. Facebook collects your facial features to make it “easier” to tag your friends and family.

Who do they sell this information to? What are we losing? What kinds of mistakes get made with such fragile and intimate information?

When did we get so complacent with giving up everything? Our privacy, our bodies and our minds. Who ultimately benefits? Do you?

Before there were ever borders, governments, wars and politics, there was breath and fingertips, and once upon a time, they were yours.

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Sham-e-Ali is a Philadelphia-based writer and poet born in Hyderabad, India.

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Sham-e-Ali is a Philadelphia-based writer and poet born in Hyderabad, India.