Friday, 2 October 2009

IdentiNet Conference, Oxford - 26-27th September 2009

Last weekend, I headed over to St Antony's college, Oxford for a two day conference - 'Identifying the Person: Past, Present & Future'. It mainly focused upon historical accounts of identification, and the disciplinary background was largely historians, but there were some other perspectives too. I wasn't giving a paper, so was able to just sit back and listen, and take a few notes. Full programme here

Panel One - Biometrics

Simon Cole (author of Suspect Identities, a history of fingerprinting) set out a theory of 'poster criminals' associatied with the promotion of particular regimes of identification. He aims to contradict the 'wiggish' history of inevitable technological development and show the contested history of technology development. The poster criminal represents the links between criminality and the identification problem. The poster criminal for fingerprinting was the burglar, whilst Cole argues the poster criminal for DNA technology is the sex criminal. Crime is seen as a problem to be solved through knowledge and science. As well as identification of individual criminals, Cole drew links between DNA fingerprinting technologies and wider attempts to find 'crime genes', and explored the use of other information technologies in dealing with sexual crime (community notification, iPhone apps that make use of sex offender registers to show you were nearby sex offenders live). He raised the prospect that the information overload available (about various forms of risk) meant that it was difficult to know what to do with that information. However, this problem itself is seen as being solveable by gaining further knowledge. I really like Cole's work, however, I'm sceptical that there is a single type of criminal that is the 'essence' of the argument. In my work on debates around ID cards in the UK, there's a whole chain of negatively evaluated roles that are mobilised in support of identification. The idea of information itself having an innate protective value emerges in the politics of terrorism too.

Mercedes Garcia Ferrari spoke about identification in Argentina, the role of police files in the 19th to early 20th century. She raised the role of the medical profession in allaying suspiscion, but that photography in ID really attracted resistance due to social stigma. She echoed Coles work by showing that in Argentina as well, scientific considerations were not the sole determinant in the development of identification technologies. An insight arising from this presentation was that if you wanted to use a technology for widespread social control, it would probably generate less resistance if you used a 'clean' technology rather than one with a history of being used in crime control, as this would be less likely to carry a stigma.

Pierre Piassa spoke about contemporary resistance to biometrics in France. He presented three case studies - the DNA sampling refusal movement, opposition to the use of biometrics in schools (primarily by parents rather than by the children subject to the system), and resistance to the national DNA database (INES?). This resistance has include unions, and has made use of websites etc to co-ordinate campaigns. The reistance to biometrics in school was said to have elements of 19th century luddism, fearing the mastery of the machine and involved sabotage. It is thought to subvert the role of the school system, conditioning pupils to accept control and punishment rather than critical and creative thinking. Pierre was cautious about drawing firm conclusions due to the relatively small number of activists about how representive they were of the French population as a whole in their attitudes towards identification and surveillance. Observations were made about the impact that France's Vichy regime had on attitudes towards identification.

The panel commentator, Pamela Sanker highlighted the importance of cateloging resistance as it happens, as when technologies become widely accepted previous resistance is elided. She pointed to the need to examine the back end of the database. Historical accidents are very important in how technologies occur, as are cultural beliefs.

Panel 2 - Intensive Documentary Surveillance

Ross Anderson spoke about the Database State, drawing upon the contents of the recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Foundation into government databases. He positioned identity cards as political theatre and overengineered, but part of a wider project of transformational government. There are 40 different identifiers used by the UK state, and there is an attempt to join them up. He spoke about the I vs Finland case, recently determined in Strasburg that establishes a legal right to restrict medical records to those directly involved in personal care, and that this would, if followed would prevent this transformative agenda. He also identified hard science issues about the dependability of large complex systems such as those the government is trying to build. Problems increase if users of complex systems are effectively competitors. There are also questions of how security scales and how universal names can be sorted across legacy systems. He is clearly in favour of the way that the private sector handles IT projects, and is scathingly critical of government IT in general.
I had a chat with Ross in the pub afterwards, and he sent me reference to an article I should read. In questions, Ross also discussed the disconnect between IT project lengths (often around 7 years) and ministerial or fast track civil service postings (typically 2 years) leading to project leaders being disengaged. He also highlighted the absence of an in-house technical staff in the UK civil service.

James Brown, one of the conference organisers read out a paper by Iris Braverman who was unable to attend. The paper looked at the Israeli border, and it's new crossing administration - an attempt to move away from capricious and unrealiable ad hoc border crossings manned by the army towards a smaller number of modern, professional, permanent 'international terminals' manned by a dedicated agency. Previously checkpoints were seen as blocking movement, these new crossings are to facilitate certain types of movement. The crossings are highly textual, in that there are signs everywhere, showing what is considered to be appropriate behaviour and how to orientate oneself to the crossing. The crossings also physically regulate conduct - it is impossible to approach them other than in single file, with no way of turning back due to systems of turnstiles and fenced queues. The images that were displayed of these were a little unsettling. Braverman described the system as a neoliberal netork of admin actors, with new forms of surveillance requring an intensive network of identification, carried out in modernised neo-liberal manner (efficiency, consumers, globalisation). An interesting paper, although I would take issue with the description of borders as 'capricious', although perhaps in a Kafka-esque sense of the word.

Jane Caplan (one of the conference organisers, and co-author of Documenting Individual Identity) spoke about identification documents and registers in Nazi Germany. There was quite a lot of historical detail to this presentation, which showed how identification practices involving local police registers and civil status systems were coupled to the primary political priority of waging war. It seemed to be a highly complex and elaborate set of processes, that seemed highly resistant to any attempt by the subject of records to alter or correct those records. This included changes to names, which became highly politicised (and vital) with the race laws the nazi regime brought in. Identification systems were used to achieve political ends, and to shore up cultural 'reforms' such as 'proper' German spellings of names (Clara to Klara for example) and restricting jewish people to a list of official jewish names. Caplan pointed out that these political changes might have been facilitated by how well they fitted with an already potnetially authoritarian system, and the acceptance of state interference in legal names. Nazi practice cannot be treated simply as an abberation from previously existing legal identification regimes. In questions, the UK was positioned as the other extreme of this, in that the state has traditionally had little jurisdiction over whatever one wanted to call oneself - as the change from David Wills to David Barnard-Wills has shown, it's a minefild of strange bits of archaic law, butting up against modern information practices.

In the question session that followed, there were remarks about what had happened to the traditional pessimistic british civil service with regard to IT projects, and also about the way that colonial practices were exported (often from the UK) and became rooted elsewhere - with Israel serving as a modern exporter of security practices that other governments explicitly 'learn from' (David Lyon) - this is something that Ces Moore and I have been writing about recently. Edward Higgs brought up Hardian's wall as an example of an attempt to control access rather than a complete barrier. One thing that came up here that REALLY threw me was the idea of illiterate police men. Now, rationally this makes sense, but I think I so strongly associate police work with some form of recording or attempting to make the criminal world legible and documented, that is seems oddly off kilter. That in itself is worth further thoughts.

Panel 3 - Mobilities

Edward Higgs argued that looking at mobility as a cause of identification regimes (as in the traditional 'modernity brings anonimity argument') isn't very productive. He pointed out that most identification was commerical rather than state based, and that when states did identify, they did it with commerical technology. He provided the two basic models through which historians make sense of the state in terms of motives and intentions.
The first is the 'statist' model in which the state exerts a will to power, and aims to control the people (James C. Scott - Seeing like a state is included here). The second is the 'social functionalist' camp in which state actions are explained in terms of the needs of society. The historical side of this presentation was good, showing how people in early modern England were highly mobile (Edward did a similar thing at the Identity in the Information Society Conference a few months back) - however, I was less happy with the second part in which this was used to draw lessons for contemporary identity cards. As a political scientists, I felt that the two models of the state offered were both simplistic and rather uncontested (the state was a relatively homogenous thing with obvious borders and end points, clear seperated from society) and contemporary government intentions were read off as if they were obvious, without much in the way of empirical evidence for the assertions made here. Edward argued that the state is attempting to turn itself in a shop with loyalty cards with the modern consumer trick of treating it's customers as individuals rather than as a mass.

Uma Dhuphelia-Mesthine spoke about Indians in the Cape and state permits system between 1906 and the 1920s - this focused upon the various evasion moves used to circumvent tight (and fairly racist) immigration requirements.

David Lyon spoke about Identifying the North American Person, theSecurity and Prosperity Agreement. This draws upon his newly released book, and had some overlap with the talk I heard him give at the LSE earlier in the week (which you can watch in full here). He drew attention to market volatily, political confusion and technology, in making it hard to predict what would stabilise out of current ID developments. He spoke about the idea of the 'card cartel' the combination of the government and private sector interests, and how the card symbolises the citizen-consumer (symbolised by the very shape of the modern card - like a credit card rather than papers, with a ready space in the wallet ready to accept it). The Security and Prosperity agreement is a north american treaty brought about by business interests post 9/11 to make sure that increased security would not trump economic mobility. David also spoke about opposition to the REAL ID act and attempts to standardise driving licenses across the US. He ended with some thoughts about the possibility of using the idea of human security as a corrective to the concerns of national security that seemed to predominate, and advocated for forms of active citizenship.

Panel 4 - Mobilities (2)

Keith Breckenridge spoke about Ghandi's involvement in identification of Indian workers in South Africa and the vulnerability of being sucked into an administrative order. This was a highly detailed presentation, which drilled down to look at the individuals involved in a pivotal political moment.

Adam Mckeown spoke about identification practices across the pacific, drawing upon his book 'Melancholy Order' he engaged with distinctions of east and west in terms of mobile, globalised classes from 1880s onwards, and contrasted the assumption that mobility and the ability to travel was an important element of human freedom with it's driver in capitalist labour practices. He argued that strengthening the external border was seen as a necessary part of allowing free movement within that border.

(day two of the conference and some conclusions to follow

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