Biometrics and Privacy. A note on the politics of theorizing technology

Irma van der Ploeg


Two lines of argument exist regarding the question whether biometrics are the next threat IT practices pose to the privacy of people. The first is the obvious one that sees biometrics as a new and pernicious way to identify, track, and profile people in ways that surpass the already daunting possibilities of existing systems. Involving what are presented as unique, positive identifyers, biometric data promise the unequivocal coupling of ‘the digital persona’ to one particular individual body.

The second line of argument, on the other hand, sees biometrics as a potential solution to privacy problems by its potential to provide, for example, verification of identity in transactions and delivery of services without disclosing name, address, or other personal data. It stresses that biometric data do not contain much meaningful information, and that the irreversibility of the processing of biometric data required by most systems prevents misuse.

This paper will not take sides in this dispute, but, rather, analyse the opposing views within the debate on their tacit assumptions regarding the nature of ‘privacy’ and of technological development and practice. It argues that both general assessments of biometric technology rely on a concept of what the technology in itself is and implies on the basis of assumed, feared, or hoped for configurations of which the technology will become part.

When looking into the proposed and existing regulations and legislation on biometrics, rather than being reassured by the guarantees provided therein, one senses what exactly is to be feared from biometrics and how much is needed to prevent it from being damaging to privacy and liberty and equality. Faced with these threats, however, the paper argues, the politics of theorizing technology itself becomes an important issue that needs to be addressed. A specific case is presented that shows how specific attributions of inherent qualities to technology may in some contexts, actually provide a rhetoric that helps to acquire the political leverage needed to shape future technological configurations in a more socially reponsible and ethically just way.