Building Biometrics: Knowledge Construction in the Democratic Control of Surveillance Technology

Jonathan Bright


If surveillance technologies are to be democratically controlled, then knowledge of these technologies is required. What do they do? How do they work? What are the costs? Yet gaining this knowledge in the context of a new surveillance technology such as biometrics can be problematic, because no settled definition exists. Competing versions of biometrics appear in both public and governmental discourse on the technology: different ideas about how often it fails, where it can be used and even what it does.

This paper is an exploration of how these different versions compete with each other, and how knowledge about a new surveillance technology such as biometrics is thus constructed. Through reference to original research in the context of the use of biometrics in the UK, points of stability and instability in the definition of biometrics are identified, and some of the processes through which instable definitions become stable are tracked.

From this empirical story, conclusions are drawn both for the process of construction of the meaning of technologies, and the general practice of surveillance in modern society. In particular, this paper aims to show how notions such as democratic control (central to the legitimation of state surveillance) become problematic when the very meaning of a technology is negotiable.


surveillance; biometrics

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