November 18, 2009 : Identifying Threat: New biometrics markets and terror culture

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Identifying Threat: New biometrics markets and terror culture

The culture of fear and distrust that has grown up around this century’s terror culture and its associated wars has created vast new markets for anything that can be branded with the words security or defence. In April 2010, London’s Kensington Olympia will play host to a Counter Terror Expo, put on by DSEi’s infamous events’ organiser, Clarion, and sponsored by French arms company, Thales. Officially supported by a plethora of military, police and private security associations, the expo will showcase over 250 security, surveillance and specialist logistics companies; state agencies including NATO and the MoD; and anyone else claiming to provide protection against terrorism for both the armed forces and civilian populations. Joining the fray are a number of corporations involved in creating identity verification technologies. The biometrics and database management companies whose invasive products, based on the recognition of physiological characteristics, are finding voice as futuristic 'solutions' in, what is deemed, an 'increasingly dangerous world'.

The promotion of ID-for-all follows a peculiar logic whereby individual safety is equated with collective criminalisation. In the wake of 9/11, state agencies, aided by the corporate media, can single out individuals, named or otherwise, as posing a threat to all, not necessarily because of what they do or have done, but because of who they are. This has created a framework in which it seems perfectly reasonable, under the auspices of preventing a 'terrorist attack', to individually identify each member of the population, to establish whether they are ‘threatening’ or ‘safe’ by categorising them using a highly specific set of criteria. Identifying, marking and categorising a population is a continuous process and the attempt to identify those who pose a 'threat' in truth criminalises all members of the community by virtue of subsuming all in a system of suspicion, surveillance and identification. Aside from the stark possibilities for abuse that increasingly comprehensive cataloguing of a population creates, the advisability of, and motivations behind, the safety-in-databases concept remains relatively unchallenged in the mainstream. Despite the mandatory nature of proposed national identity schemes, as it stands biometric security systems do have to be sold to, or at least accepted as unavoidable by, whichever population they are applied to. The manufacturers of these systems employ a potent mix of nowhere-is-safe fearmongering with a sycophantic insistence that those who invest in its technologies are wisely ahead of the pack. They are providing unparalleled safety for their employees/students/personnel/establishment, whilst simultaneously buying a “bespoke” piece of the future, complete with suitably high-status branding and a form of corporate vanguardism that maintains, perhaps correctly, that it is perched on the brink of a new world.

Exhibitor Focus

Identification technologies are by no means a side issue in terror-profiteering; five of the 26 specialist areas laid out in the Counter Terror Expo’s Exhibitor Profile list fall under the bracket of identity verification technologies, in addition to those relating to various forms of surveillance. In coming months, Corporate Watch will be focussing on the projects of a number of companies involved in biometric technologies and that will be profiting under the Counter Terror banner at next year’s expo.

We begin here with Human Recognition Systems. Originally a Liverpool based company, Human Recognition Systems has expanded seismically into an international venture and claims to be the UK leader in biometric technologies and consultancy. Boasting that it is a key member of “global consortia” developing national ID schemes, HRS is working to significantly extend its operations to the Middle East and elsewhere. The company has invested in a multitude of security systems ventures. Partnered with a host of other biometrics and surveillance companies, HRS is a provider of iris, hand, finger, face and vein biometrics. The company also develops the behaviour recognition technologies being used at airports to identify potentially ‘threatening’ individuals by computer rather than by eye. Current high profile contracts include consultancy and ‘solutions’ for the Department of Health, the MoD, the Prison Service, the Home Office, Manchester Airport and the Latvian government. HRS has recently completed a project for the London 2012 Olympics, involving the cataloguing of the iris and hand specifications of 8,000 workers at the Olympic construction site in East London. The project is the first of its kind in the UK in that it combines iris and hand recognition in one system. HRS chief executive Neil Norman (formerly of corporate management consultancy, Accenture) stated rather oddly in the Liverpool Daily Post that the new system was accurate and effective “for the typical worker”, and both Olympic officials, ministers and the media have fallen over themselves to point out what a "stringent anti-terror" measure this constitutes.

Involvement in Universities

Human Recognition Systems’ business is extremely broad, particularly as it combines biometrics with surveillance through its behaviour recognition arm. However, of particular significance to the growth of a database society is the considerable investment that HRS has received over the past two years from the Capital Values Group. Indeed, the executive vice president of the Capital Values Group, Andrew Lee, is also chairman of HRS. Engaged in a similarly ruthless mission of international expansion, the Capital Values Group capitalises on the rebranding of real estate, turning it into high end student accommodation, kitted out with all the security specifications a client could wish for. The “discreet, proactive” security offered by the company includes 24 hour management by actual staff, as well as unmanned biometric entry systems. Aside from its contribution to an increasingly exclusive, corporately driven system of higher education, by working with HRS, the Capital Values Group is helping to push biometric technologies on a favourite guinea pig group: students. Existing as a reasonably closed community, essentially governed by their university management and often living in homogenised, maintained accommodation, student populations form a social microcosm that is ideal for the testing and application of biometric security systems. Last year, the UK government unveiled the first stage of its varyingly successful attempt to implement a national ID card scheme by requiring all non-EU foreign students to carry an ID card containing biometric data at all times.

Although the Capital Values Group’s major completed projects are in Australia, the company has an office in London and is planning to move into Asia, the Middle East and Europe, beginning with student accommodation developments in London. The corporate website plays heavily on parents’ fears for their children flying the nest for a new city as a justification for the high levels of security technology involved in its developments. The UK has already seen instances of racial and political profiling by universities of their students, with severe crackdowns on campus politics and tutors asked by the state to ‘keep tabs’ on foreign students and their work and to log their attendance. HRS is supplying all the products necessary to facilitate and heighten this discrimination, but also to feed into wider society generations of graduates, brought up under the looming 'threat of terrorism', for whom the constant logging of personal information and physiological data is normalised and almost unchallengeable. As universities across the UK move towards more business-based models for both education and facilities, high tech security systems can fit very neatly into the ethos and design of the glossy, branded utopias that campuses increasingly aspire to be.

Potential for unhindered growth

The identification technology sector has in its very nature the potential to be immensely profitable. Whether paid for by governments employing its technologies, the individuals subjected to them or the corporations adopting increasingly high tech, high status security systems, the products are designed for a universal market as their whole purpose requires the inclusion of every individual in a particular population, national or otherwise. The discourse of the terror-threat is not only politically and financially profitable, its strength also lies in its endless potential for expansion.‘Terror’ as a buzzword is now so strong that it can, and is, being applied to everything from warfare, weapons sales and immigration policy to surveillance expansion, political dissent and policing practices. Moreover, it is an inexhaustible resource: the ‘Wars on Terror’ are used to create more, not fewer, reasons to fear terrorism, whilst police anti-terror operations identify more and more people as ‘domestic extremists’. For every new 'threat', there is of course a new technology to ‘combat’ it. The apparently unstoppable growth of the omnipresent danger of 'terror' legitimises constant development in biometric technology, requiring users of these products to constantly update and replace existing systems, in line with new security requirements and neatly ensuring technological market remains dynamic and profitable.

A campaign is forming against the Counter Terror Expo, for more information see www.dsei.org