The US: Biometric Surveillance As A New Dimension To State Protest Repression

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Protest serves as a direct challenge to the structure of representative democracy, creating a space for groups, whose wants and needs are not promoted by the system, to form their own discourses and introduce them into public consciousness. From the Boston Tea Party to countless other protest movements, including the Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the Civil Rights movement, there is a rich history of direct action in American politics; with resistance and protest movements originating from both sides of the political spectrum. However, for as long as there have been challenges to state power, there has been surveillance to try and limit it.

The US government’s history of protest repression exists not just in direct legislative challenges – such as the Smith Act, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act – but also through a long line of subversive and deliberately disguised attempts to undermine activism through media campaigns, infiltration, intimidation, and criminalisation. Researchers have studied these methods and their effects on protest movements to understand how demobilisation can be achieved through repressive techniques and their direct and indirect consequences. A large portion of these tactics rely on the identification of activists.

Technology as a tool for state security is not a new phenomenon, but since 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act that followed, a Western culture of fear has resulted in lobbying from biometric companies, placing new identification measures at the forefront of an increased focus on “security”. Biometric security technologies contribute to a phenomenon called “corporeal fetishism”, where the body is broken down into measurable components, making individuals quantifiable and allowing the population to be divided into different classifications that determine how they are treated by the state[1]. The technology is not infallible and poses threats to civil liberties because of its tendency to make false identifications.

Even when it works “correctly”, it has multiple side effects, such as dehumanising the targets of this technology, forcing clear-cut boundaries onto things that may defy clear categorisation such as race and gender, and creating unequal access to public space through its ability to mark bodies as “wrong” and therefore deny them access.[2][3][4] Virilio’s theory of the “integral accident” suggests that with every new advance in technology we create a new potential for harm, an idea that is supported by Mordini and Massari’s discussion of “function creep”. Function creep occurs when a technology is implemented beyond its original intended purpose, which usually creates a slippery slope effect where it is difficult to reinstate the boundaries it has overstepped. Biometrics are a clear example of this.

Facial recognition technology is a commonly implemented biometric technology that has increased potential for harm due to its ability to be used without targets’ consent or knowledge, as well as its ability to be applied to previously taken images.[5] Recent examples of biometric function overreach include usage of police body cameras, application to CCTV footage, and police requests for doorbell camera footage to be used for protestor identification in the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020. Newer forms of facial recognition technology can be used even when face masks are worn, removing one of the few protections that individuals had in the age of surveillance. The tradition of protest in the US is being undermined by underhanded tactics. With no federal and very few state-level laws protecting biometric privacy, determining how citizens can resist the stifling of protests requires further research.