In recent years, there has been an increasing use of so-called biometric information (e.g. photograph and fingerprints) in asylum and integration systems. Philosophical reflection calls attention to this tendency and considers it a disturbing characteristic of modern times with the potential to affect all of us.
BY Sidsel Rosenberg Bak • Illustration by Simon Væth
The biopolitical tattoo
In the Spring Semester of 2004, the Italian philosopher and scholar Giorgio Agamben cancelled his plans to teach at New York University because he refused to have his fingerprints scanned and checked by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Since the terror attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, American immigration control has tightened its grip, extensively so through the US-VISIT program. The US-VISIT technological system has since 2004 allowed for mandatory obtaining and verification of biometrics. Such digital biometrics may be used for authentication; meaning that biological traits can establish the identity of a person. When you, in your home country, apply for a visa to visit the United States, a Department of State consular officer will require your fingerprints and photo to be taken. On arrival in the United States, biometrics will once again be collected so that the identity of the visa holder can be confirmed and the chances of fraud diminished. In the future, you will also be asked to provide these data when leaving the country in order that the state can keep track of who is entering and leaving the country.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, their main aim is to work towards “a safer, more secure America, which is resilient against terrorism and other potential threats.” Collecting biometrics is legitimised by reference to national security and the prevention of identity theft of American citizens. Immigration and border control are thus inherently associated with security concerns such as terrorism; the collateral damage being that immigrants are equated with criminals.
The increasing use of biometric information is not only a residual effect of the focus on terrorism over the past decade. If we are to believe Giorgio Agamben, it is also a distinct feature of modernity that ‘Big Brother is watching’, so to speak. When Agamben refused to visit the United States, he published a newspaper article, “Non au tatouage biopolitique” [“No to Biopolitical Tattooing”], explaining the reasons for his actions. Here, he put forward the notion that the use of biometric data is a widespread phenomenon undermining the politico-juridical status not only of people who are influenced by it, but of all citizens of “the so-called democratic states where we live.” The problem is the balance of power: citizens become vulnerable and prone to manipulation when the state collects sensitive information about their health, behavior etc. For Agamben, upholding liberal standards is not the issue. He does not argue that the practice is a threat to personal freedom; it is a question of respecting the human being. Do we want a society where the more exposed one is, the more vulnerable one gets?
Not just in America
It is not just in America that one can observe these trends. European states and the European Union are also promoting the use of biological traits in immigration and criminal justice systems. As free movement across EU borders is made easier via the Schengen cooperation, access for non-EU citizens is hindered. The EU’s Visa Information System, VIS, was established following a decision in 2004 to make the exchange of visa information between EU states easier. When a non-EU citizen enters one of the member countries, their fingerprints are scanned electronically. They are sent to the VIS database and retained for five years. EU states can then use VIS to identify the visa holder and check any criminal antecedents. The European Commission has claimed that registration of entry and exit (among other things) is needed to reduce the number of irregular migrants and make crossings faster for reliable regular travelers from third world countries. The expectation is that VIS will become more global in its scope, being already extended to North African and Arabic countries.
Even though data in the Visa Information System only can be accessed by authorized staff under appropriate conditions, and everyone can ask to see their own record and have errors corrected, the trend is disturbing seen from a biopolitical point of view.
Biopower – or biopolitics – is a term coined by the French theorist Michel Foucault who defines it as a governance of the human species. “Bio” originates from the Greek word for life, bios. By the 19th century, the societal power structure according to Foucault consisted of a right to let die and to bring about, maybe even produce, life [“droit de faire vivre et de laisser mourir”]. For instance, in medical science the correlation between birth and death rate became of great interest. From that, control mechanisms are concerned with the health of the subjects (nowadays through artificial insemination, genetic engineering and so on). Simply by virtue of being human, you are subjected to biopower. All around the world, issues of ethics in medicine are debated in councils. In some countries, they are established by the governments as independent committees, but nonetheless, securing and improving life (and indeed debating how to) is an integral part of authoritarian domination. Biological traits of the living human being are thus subsumed into the power of the state. By focusing on crea-ting and maintaining life, the counterpart – death – is reaffirmed. In medical terms, ’to let die’ could denote physician-assisted suicide. By letting die, life ceases to be the principal aspect of human life and faire vivre ends.
It is this line of thought that Agamben adopts when criticizing what he calls bio-political tattooing. Both the US-VISIT and VIS are tattooing instances in this aspect. Record-keeping and surveillance are seen as facts of life that aren’t called into question. Agamben questions whether controlling people’s lives is necessarily a legitimized way of exercising sovereign power.
The concept of biopower gives voice to frustration of people at risk. It indicates how not to treat human beings in general, including migrants. One can legitimately ask: Is it fair to put an electronic mark on people who are stripped of their rights, e.g. fleeing from persecution in their home country?
When applying for asylum, you also meet the biological oriented system. The EU takes precautionary measures to guard against what some refer to as ‘asylum shopping’. The Dublin II regulation states that an asylum request must be considered in the EU country where the asylum seeker has one or more close relatives, already has a visa or a residence permit for, or first filed an application. To implement this regulation, the Eurodac register (a database with the fingerprints of European asylum seekers) means that every case history is personalized and can be accessed by national immigration services. Rejection of an asylum application in one EU country can thereby deny asylum in another EU country. A new EU proposal opens up the possibility of national law enforcement bodies being permitted to search Eurodac for matches. Criminal investigations of human trafficking, terrorists and the like are then connected to asylum procedures. In the beginning of September 2012 Peter Hustinx, European Data Protection Supervisor, stated in a press release:
“Just because the data has already been collected, it should not be used for another purpose which may have a far-reaching negative impact on the lives of individuals. To intrude upon the privacy of individuals and risk stigmatizing them requires strong justification and the Commission has simply not provided sufficient reason why asylum seekers should be singled out for such treatment.”
In this light, the proposal is an “erosion of fundamental rights [that] creeps along”. States and supranational entities are deciding the future of migrating people and thus whether they are to be included or excluded from the populations. It is a kind of power over human bodies. Laws and regulations control the lives of citizens and non-citizens which in turn affect their ability to have an impact on their own future. There is a presumed need to improve documentation and efficiency concerning immigration and state security; it results in an increasing use of biopolitical methods. Thus, the biology of the human being is brought into play and made vulnerable. In a way, it is a game of hide and seek where the loser, for instance the foreigner, is the most dispossessed.
Giorgio Agamben: “Non au tatouage biopolitique”, Le Monde diplomatique, January 10 (2004)
European Data Protection Supervisor (Press release): “EURODAC: erosion of fundamental rights creeps along”, Press release September 5 (2012),
Michel Foucault: Il faut défendre la
société, Paris, Gallimard (1997)