“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


As our readers know, LI does like a good debunking. Which is why you should go to Christopher Lukasik’s “The Physiognomy of Biometrics” over at Commonplace and read about the pseudo-science into which the Defense Department is preparing to pour 11 billion dollars. Not that 11 billion is more than chump change at the Pentagon; but for us poor wankers at the LI office, 11 billion dollars is a lot of dough. We’d settle for, say, five and a half billion to pay the bills and such.

Lukasik’s article starts out with a reading of an 18th century novel that we’d never heard of , Susanna Rowson’s The Inquisitor, or Invisible Rambler, which “recounts the experiences of a wealthy gentleman who, after complaining about the amount of duplicity in the world, is mysteriously given a ring that can turn him invisible. With the power of invisibility, the gentleman boasts that now "I should find my real friends, and detect my enemies." Our Rambler becomes a self-employed detective – invisibility makes police or thieves of us all, which is why the Internet is divided between fiskers and hackers – and follows villains through the stages to their revealing acts.

How does he know who to follow?

“He knows, we later learn, because he is a physiognomist. "I never cast my eye upon a stranger but I immediately form some idea of his or her dispositions by the turn of their eyes and cast of their features," he explains, "and though my skill in physiognomy is not infallible, I seldom find myself deceived." Indeed, nearly all of the people the invisible rambler suspects eventually behave as their faces predicted they would. Throughout The Inquisitor, faces reveal seducers, gamblers, idlers, dissimulators, and a variety of crooks and fortune hunters. For Rowson at least, a person’s face becomes the probable cause for the rambler’s surveillance.”

Lukasik has an enjoyable time showing the bridge between the physiognomic craze of the early nineteenth century to the biometric superstitions of our own highly superstitious time. As he points out, matching face or body to person, which seems easy at first glance, is actually rather difficult to do mechanically. People age, they change hair dos, they get into accidents, they get wrinkles and then get rid of wrinkles, and so on and so forth. Slippery signifieds, who, if they are bent on planting bombs, can even screw up the machinery of identification with a little ingenuity:

“This has proven to be quite a problem for the industry, since biometrics, especially facial recognition systems, have not performed well when tested. A recent National Institute for Standards and Technology study, for example, found that facial recognition technology failed to match people correctly 23 percent of the time. Last year, it failed to match employees at Boston’s Logan International Airport up to 38 percent of the time, and in 2002 it failed to match Palm Beach Airport employees 53 percent of the time. According to the Economist, the 2003 government-sponsored Face Recognition Vendor Test found that "none of the systems worked well . . . when shown a face and asked to identify the subject." Martyn Gates, a facial recognition specialist, confessed to the Financial Times that "in some systems, the accuracy is almost random.

… As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, Tsumoto Matsimoto from Yokohama University was able to fool eleven different fingerprint scanners roughly 80 percent of the time using $10 worth of gelatin.”

But, as with the anti-ballistic missile shield, biometrics is booming in spite of its failures. The business of security, as Lukasik puts it, is to provide the appearance of security – and, as he doesn’t add but LI will, at a cost heavy enough to employ a bunch of Pentagon honchos when they revolve through that door.

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