Next time I enter the United States of America my face will be biometrically measured and my fingerprints scanned and stored by American intelligence. Think about that: that’s information my own government doesn’t have about me. It’s information I don’t have about me. It’s also information the US won’t be collecting about its own citizens. (Perhaps it would be in breach of their constitutional rights, rights not afforded to non-US citizens?)
Of course, my government has plenty of other information about me. Norwegians have always been good at storing information about their citizens. When the Nazis invaded Norway, rounding up all the Jews was as trivial as it was to disenfranchise women in A Handmaid’s Tale (bank accounts transferred to husbands and fathers overnight, all electronic, a keystroke and lives are changed). That, of course, is the problem with total information awareness. Today I’m white, of appropriate social class, I’m gainfully employed, my gender is seen as (theoretically) equal in the countries I choose to visit and I’ve never done anything currently defined as criminal in the wealthy Western countries I’m a citizen and resident of. Others are far less fortunate in the lottery of birth and circumstance. And tomorrow or next year or decade even my gold-edged socio-genetic profile may no longer be appropriate. A fundamentalist regime (whether Muslim, Christian or political) might have any number of reasons to declare me a persona non grata. My Bosnian neighbour told me, on September 11, 2001, how nobody expected war in Bosnia, even after hearing that the Serbs had attacked. It’s not that long since Norway was occupied, either. It could happen again.
The first issue of the new Fibreculture journal is about The Politics of Networks and deal with issues like these. In “Perfect Match: Biometrics and Body Patterning in a Networked World” Gillian Fuller writes about the translation of identity into pattern matching where we must be validated at every threshold, not just at the border of a country but when buying groceries (money in account? PIN code?) going to work (swipe card and PIN to open door) driving (electronic tag for paying tolls) or making a phone call.
Fibreculture is a mailing list, a series of meetings, and now also a journal, mostly populated by Australian and New Zealander artists and academics who care about networked culture and art and theory. The Fibreculture journal is a new endeavour: a peer-reviewed, scholarly online journal growing from the vibrant discussions on Fibreculture mailing list. The first two issues were published today. These are topics we need to think about.
Do you know what? Though these massive surveillance systems are meant to protect us against terrorists, they wouldn’t have helped a bit against the attacks on September 11. Every one of the 19 hijackers entered the United States using his real name. My talented Chinese colleague, on the other hand, doing a postdoc, safely resident in Norway, invited to give a presentation at a US conference, was denied a visa.
I think what jolts me most about the thought of being scanned on entering the US is being forced to realise that I am totally subject to the whims of governments. I’ve internalised that at home, keying PINs constantly, electronically clicking “yes” to file a tax return the authorities have already filled out for me, giving up information so automatically that I think I am free and in control. Crossing unfamiliar and heavily policed borders it’s impossible to sustain that illusion of freedom.