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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Biometric Consortium (p. 181)

From chapter "The Noose Tightens "

Technology is not neutral. It does not serve communities. Despite predictions that all these panoptic gizmos will soon be commercially available to you the “consumer,” the truth is that “they” (government and corporations) have the resources and capacity to collect and analyze information to control people (consumers, citizens, human beings), and you don’t. You’re not going to buy a predator drone to eliminate your bothersome neighbor or the oppressive police. You’re not going to be privy to the data gleaned from the RFID tags on your neighbors’ clothing.

Of course technophiles and technoholics alike will trot out their obligatory arguments that technology is neutral, and that the effects of technology just depend on who uses it, implying that things would be different if only they and not George Bush (insert bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Democrats, whoever) controlled predator drones. It’s a stupid argument, as pointless in its own way as discussing whether some theoretical Christianity could possibly not commit genocide, some theoretical capitalism could possibly not consume the planet, some theoretical science could possibly not have as its primary goal the attempted control of everything. High technology, Christianity, capitalism, science: these all spring from the same mindset. So of course they will all move inexorably toward the same ends, with any pesky legal and moral objections only harassing their ankles like fleas.

It’s a moot point anyway, since the purpose of technology in our culture is to leverage power, and so it is inevitably driven by the ultimate in leverage, the military.

Computers and the Internet were first designed by the military. Many pesticides were originally designed as chemical weapons against humans. Half the scientists and engineers are engaged in military-related research. Many of the technologies used for surveillance, tracking, detaining, and destroying were developed or funded by the military, or quickly adapted to police and military uses.

The director of MIT’s computer science lab credited military-supported work with “half of the major innovations in computing, including breakthroughs in microcircuits and data-management systems.” This relationship between science and war continues in the marriage of machines and living beings. The U.S. Army has established an Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, and MIT. The institute wants to find “better materials for uniforms or armor, faster and lighter computers and batteries and more elaborate sensors.”

Then there’s the Biometric Consortium, which “serves as the federal government’s focal point for research, development, test, evaluation, and application of biometric-based personal identification and verification technology.” By 2002, the Consortium had more than eight hundred members, making it sound like some grand community effort. But guess what? The Consortium was initiated and operates under the National Security Agency. The members are government agencies or organizations; those from “private industry and academia will be invited to the Consortium meetings in an observer capacity.”

Of course biometrics isn’t just for military use. It has many civilian applications. Workplace and airport security. Fingerprinting in Stockholm public schools. The Los Angeles City Hall and the New York City Police Department.

The Consortium isn’t alone in promoting the measurement of life. The Biometric Interoperability, Performance and Assurance Working (BIPAW) Group supports “advancement of technically efficient and compatible biometric technology solutions on a national and international basis.” The BIPAW Group consists of over ninety organizations “representing biometric vendors, system developers, information assurance organizations, commercial end users, universities, government agencies, national labs and industry organizations.” The Group’s host is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration. NIST was founded in 1901 with a mission to “develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life.” Standardization, utility, efficiency, interchangeability.

How to destroy the world is as easy as A, B, C. This obscure little agency spends $864 million a year employing three thousand scientists, engineers, technicians, and support and administrative personnel, plus sixteen hundred guest researchers. And NIST partners with two thousand manufacturing specialists.

NIST is pretty upfront about the way it pervades our lives. It even says on its Website: “Take a tour of your house and find out where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has an unseen role.” They say this like it’s a good thing.