As the iPhone goes, so goes the world.
The consumerist world is buzzing this week with news that Apple’s new iPhone 5S will include a creepy fingerprint scan to unlock the phone and facilitate the ‘secure’ purchase of apps and other products.
That’s right, the unsettling development of biometric identification is moving forward in lockstep with the cashless control grid on one of the most widely popular communications technologies in history, all in the wake of fallout over the extent of NSA surveillance programs that monitor and collect data from the communications of ordinary Americans.
In attempt to stay one step ahead of privacy concerns, Apple has emphasized that the fingerprint is only stored locally on the phone not on remote Best cloud Storage servers. However, it is not clear whether or not Apple may still have access to fingerprint data, or whether it is shared through any other systems, or could be hacked remotely or via the physical phone.
Further, the iPhone 5S will ‘only’ store a data log identifying your fingerprint, and not a digital image of the actual fingerprint images, though, vulnerabilities clearly still exist.
“Fingerprints are not fool-proof and can be duplicated and as the usage of this technology increases, we can expect that duplication technology will improve as well.” Mark Rogers, of the firm Lookout, told the Daily Mail.
At this point, users should engage this latest tech update with extreme caution, though droves of fanatical first wave purchasers seems more likely.
It was revealed in April 2011 that the iPhone 4 was storing a hidden log of user location data (approximated based on surrounding cell towers and WiFi hotspots) as well as logging timestamps and other data, creating a big enough data picture for some serious privacy concerns. Apple, however, immediately downplayed the significance, just as it has with concerns over fingerprint scans and the iPhone 5, claiming that the log was only kept locally and never sent to Apple or used for tracking.
However, the recent NSA leaks on PRISM and other mass surveillance programs, which revealed collaboration between spy agencies and tech firms, including Microsoft, Google and Apple, give enough reason to be skeptical of such reassurances. Generally speaking, companies have not been upfront where they should have been with their customers on how data was used – potentially or actually – by unseen hands.
Specifically, it was revealed that the NSA did have the capability of cracking smartphone encryption and hacking users ‘most sensitive’ data through backdoor technology that even the companies may not have known about. Whether fingerprint scans could be among the ‘exploitable’ identifying information the spy agency might target or collect remains to be seen.
Police, schools and businesses have given assurances that fingerprint scans taken at roadside stops, interrogations, school lunch programs, libraries, points of sale and various access and authentication points are not being stored, but instead are converted into algorithms which supposedly cannot be reverse engineered.
This point is reiterated by defenders of the new iPhone, as in the Washington Post’s Everyone Calm Down About the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner. But can these assurances really be trusted? (Many government officials are still denying that the NSA is spying on average Americans.) And should we really be naive enough to engage this system at every turn with increasing amounts of extremely personal information?
Critics have warned that thieves have already resorted to dismembering victims to use their body parts to gain access to protected and encrypted areas, and that such shocking events would occur with widespread use of the iPhone 5. It’s the kind of biometric backlash long-since featured in Hollywood films like Mission: Impossible or Minority Report, where the heroes borrow eyeballs and fingers to trick checkpoint scanners. Engineers have fought back by developing “life check” software that measures for pulse and perspiration in order to verify that the finger is on a living being. But those technologies can be defeated too, and immerse the user even more fully into the bioscanning environment – and philosophically intertwine biological life and technology even further, while increasing control.
‘Experts’ and ‘officials’ are increasingly claiming that passwords are too confusing and vulnerable, and thus will soon be chucked out the window. One voice joining that chorus is Regina Dugan, who has worked on high level projects for DARPA, Google and Motorola, and has now advocated using electronic tattoos and ingested, encrypted authentication pills that make the “whole body” a biometric password that can be used for online and physical verification.
These an other developments, like Homeland Security’s Trusted Traveler program, make clear that the powers that be intend for the emerging future to be “secured” and based around authenticated and verified persons, places, things and transactions, backed up and controlled by biometric data.
Use of biometric data has been a long time coming. It was foundational to the Eugenics movement started in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, first cousin to Charles Darwin, in turn a foundational figure in the rising paradigm of science-based public policy surrounding the popularization of the Theory of Natural Selection. Galton is also known for being the ‘father of biometrics,’ having founded the journal Biometrika. Galton tied fingerprints, hair samples, eye color and other identifying measurements of the human body (anthropometry) to the growing Eugenics movement. In the U.S., the Eugenics Records Office collected and stored genealogical histories, interviews and biometric data for at least hundreds of thousands of Americans. Under positive eugenics, the ‘fit’ genetic pools, supposedly gifted with the best heritage, were encouraged to reproduce, while negative eugenics identified ‘undesirable’ peoples and pushed for laws and policies that identification the “feebleminded” and “unfit,” allowing for forced sterilization, mandatory birth control and economic disincentives meant to decrease target population sizes and hand
power over life to the State.
Eugenics laws and closely related public health policies were passed in the United States, as well as the UK, later spreading to Nazi Germany and other Western nations. However, the largely elitist philosophy of dominance lost credibility with the fall and exposure of Hitler’s regime. Instead, it reemerged in the post-war world under code names like “population control” and in conjunction with environmental pretexts calling for restrictions on resource, energy & land use, as well as “family planning” and other softly-termed nudges towards outright restrictions like China’s one child policy.
Today’s neo-eugenics – where scientists are using techniques of artificial reproduction, genetic screening and genetic modification – is already ideologically married to a system that is increasingly using “smart” data to track and control user behavior, while encouraging or mandating smaller families and the the use of fewer resources, energy and carbon dioxide. Acclimating consumers – voluntarily through ubiquitous technologies like the iPhone – to biometrics as a way of life is one small fingerprint forward for mankind, and one giant leap forward for the unfolding ‘brave new world’ that threatens to swallow up what’s left of humanity.