In Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, David Lyon (also lead researcher at The Surveillance Project) continues to unveil the different layers of the surveillance society. In this book, he zeroes in on the technology, impetus and social consequences of various ID cards plans that many countries have implemented or are considering, mainly in the name of security and against terrorist threats.
For Lyon, ID systems are an especially powerful – but not necessarily new in themselves – form of surveillance because the current and proposed systems operate based databases that can ingurgitate and regurgitate and correlate ever greater amounts of individual data and can be synchronized and connected to other databases, governmental or corporate. And as always with any systems of surveillance, the reliance on categories as database units has the potential of discriminating against already disadvantaged categories of the population.
Moreover, identity cards are not just cards that establish identity, they are mechanisms of identification verification for a variety of purposes and as the settings where we are required to identify ourselves multiply, off- or online (think all the e-government, or government 2.0 services as well as e-business, e-education, etc.), the amount and diversity of information to be embedded in ID systems grows as well. For Lyon, this is a very threatening development, socially, ethically and politically.
“The book explores the them of ‘identifying citizens’ from a number of angles, historical, technical, political and sociological, with a view to showing how new ID systems raise urgent new questions for analysis, ethics and policy. We have made a world of global trade and consumption that depends heavily upon computer and communication technologies to organize and coordinate everyday life, and ID systems often contribute to its greater efficiency and convenience. But the same systems often replicate and sometimes exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of that world, and they do so in ways that are subtle and that may not be intended by their promoters. These are not IDs of ‘one’s own choice’ so much as those ‘inflated and launched by others.” (2)
For Lyon, identification is the starting point of surveillance, the moment at which an individual shows up on a computer screen as data point with specific characteristics depending on the nature of the database. And if an organization, be it an online store, the Department of Homeland Security or the systems put in place by the International Civil Aviation Organization decide that one’s demographics are of interest for their own purposes, then, social consequences follow. So, it is not just who we are that is part of contemporary ID systems, but also our tastes, behavior, relationships and various preferences that are of interest and therefore stored in databases, along with, sometimes, biometric data (such as the fingerprints and retinal scans that those of us, international travelers, leave at the airport).
Now, from a historical point of view, ID systems are not new. States, especially modern states, have always had an interest in being able to establish and verify their citizens’ identity for a variety of purposes: taxation, conscription, delivery of welfare services, for instance. The colonial states also used identification for their own interest, such as subdividing the population into solidified racial or ethnic categories (with the devastating results that we know when it comes to apartheid South Africa and Rwanda).
What is different with current ID systems is that (1) they use the storing and computational power of information and communication technologies, which means more and more data can be stored and cross-referenced through massive databases whose coding reflect the biases of their programmers and the institutions that commission the creation of the ID system. (2) These systems can be public (government) or private or privatized (outsourced by the government to private companies). (3) These systems are globalized as global standards of technology are designed and implemented worldwide, such as the machine-readable travel documents. These truly new aspects have the potential to make surveillance more extensive, more intensive and widespread.
At the heart of the book is the central distinction between identity and identification. Surveillance systems are about identification, that is, the mobilization of personal data for purposes stated by the relevant institutions, public or private. Identify incorporates a personal narrative component, a sense of how we define who we are rather than strictly imposed upon us (here the reference to Goffman is relevant in terms of identity management). Surveillance systems are all about identification, not identity. In identification systems, we have little to no control over the kind of data collected and managed.
Why does it matter so much to be able to identify citizens / consumers? Any system of surveillance operates on the double more inclusion / exclusion, the discrimination between the legitimate citizen and the illegal immigrant, between the legitimate traveler and the potential terrorist, between the legitimate welfare recipient and the fraud, that is, between a legitimate identification and an Other to be detected, sorted and excluded (off to Guantanamo Bay, maybe). Surveillance involves all sorts of such social sorting mechanisms but, for Lyons, ID systems are the ones that go the furthest.
In addition to establishing a legitimate identification, ID systems also then make us more legible for a variety of institutions according to the parameters they have established (Amazon.com is interested in my reading / musical tastes and it knows what I have bought before can derive what I will most likely read in the future and push these things to me, for instance). However, as it becomes possible to collect and store more data, then more and different kinds of data are collected and stored by both public and private institutions. There is a very real possibility that these databases might be combined and delivered to us in the form of a one ID card that could be used both as ID, driving license and consumer card all in one.
In many ways, it does not seem so far-fetched to think of something like this:
And of course, Id systems are already used to detect undesirables, whoever they happen to be as part of the generic social sorting involved in all surveillance mechanism:
As Lyon puts it,
“New ID card systems are a species of surveillance, then, but they also share a key characteristic of much contemporary surveillance in that they facilitate forms of ‘social sorting’. This is a large-scale and far-reaching trend, enabled in fine-grain form by the use of searchable databases and associated techniques such as data mining, characterized by the classifying and profiling of groups in order to provide different levels of treatment, conditions or services to groups that have thus been distinguished from one another.” (41)
All this may be presented to us as a way of offering better service and benefits, public or private (such as airline miles or special offers of different kinds) or in terms of security (surrender more data in order to have them protected) but all this amounts to the fact that greater aspects of our lives fall under surveillance mechanisms that are neither neutral nor entirely safe or error-proof.
Lyon then mobilizes a series of concepts to analyze further the nature and consequences of ID systems:
- Banopticon: as opposed to its ancestor, the Panopticon, the banopticon refers to the mechanisms of exclusion: simply being placed in a suspect category (welfare fraud, potential terrorist) is enough to be banned and excluded from specific spheres of life: placed on a no-fly list or to have one’s credit score ruined or benefits withdrawn. The banopticon refers to all the exclusionary nature of these modes of surveillance and governance.
- Risk-to-reassurance continuum: a great deal of the ID schemes are presented to us not only as security measures designed to create risk-free experience and risk-free society but also as reassurance mechanisms as well as customization systems.
- Global surveillance assemblage: the set of more and more globally coordinated and synchronized systems of surveillance that operate worldwide based on globally established standards (as part of global governance mechanisms) and potential full interoperability.
- Risk-to precaution just-in-case data gathering: data are now collected as preventive measures before anything has happened based on demographic analysis of who is more likely to engage in certain type of behavior or possess certain characteristics which make them suspect in advance.
- All this boils down to governing by identification through stretched screens (ever greater amount of data collected and mined) and ubiquitous computing all done in real (liquid) time and on a global scale, along with ubiquitous networking and ubiquitous biometrics. Certainly, Foucault’s concept of biopower is relevant here as the body itself becomes a source of data to be mined and used for identification.
And as usual, all these mechanisms are not socially neutral in their design and consequences. Already, being able to obtain a credit card and having the ability to provide ID is a source of social stratification (this issue comes up regularly in the United States when it comes to providing ID for voting as some categories of the population may be less able to provide the proper documentation). Being legible to governments and corporations may become the price to pay to, ironically, exercise one’s rights and freedoms. Needless to say, certain populations such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may find themselves then unable to have rights as they are unable to be documented. The right to have rights is a problematic that Saskia Sassen has been promoting in her book Territory, Authority and Rights and that is clearly relevant here. On the other hand, the global surveillance assemblage is much kinder to other categories of people: diplomats, business travelers and academics, all seen as legitimate global actors and national citizens, on the move for the “right” reasons.
So, how does one resist such powerful global surveillance assemblage? Is it even desirable? What forms of resistance are available beyond hacking and cyberterrorism in the context of the disappearance of disappearance. Contestation can take many forms, from legal challenges in a variety of settings to social movements questioning the very notion of citizenship as national concept.
“Writing of the fast-changing world of contemporary claims to membership of nation-states, Gerard Delanty concludes that citizenship is no longer defined only by nationality and the nation-state, but is increasingly de-territorialized and fragmented into separate discourses of rights, participation, responsibility and identity. Equally, citizenship is no longer exclusively about struggles for social equality – the dominant post-war mode of struggle – but has become a major site of battles over cultural identity and demands for recognition of group difference. This cannot but be evident in current debates over ID systems.” (138)
(Sassen again here)
If one were to extend Lyon’s discussion, one would note that another thing that is done by ID cards systems, of course, is to individualize citizenship, thereby diluting the notion of solidarity that were built into it when the modern-state system was created, which, of course, matches the objectives of neo-liberal neo-conservative politics and policies that reduce individuals to card-carriers and consumers, including some, and rejecting others. Think of the campaign that accuse illegal music downloaders of ruining it for everyone else. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate actors is an individualizing one that leave those designed as legitimate actors pitted against the illegitimate ones, rather the system that exacts such sorting in the first place. In this context, it is not surprising that resistance might take the form of re-creating solidarity, such as providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants or the international Pirate Party movement.
As always, it is a well-written book, a bit repetitive at times (especially for those of us familiar with the whole Surveillance Society approach) but it is a nice updating of the global surveillance assemblage that is a work in progress.
What’s in your wallet?