The term “Orwellian,” according to Daniel J. Leab of Brown University, “has become a synonym for the oppressive social forces that make us discontented and fearful, be they by state regimentation, or (other means).” The book whose message this term is derived from – George Orwell’s “1984” – is a dark tale of a world where privacy is a long lost concept and society – forced by the government to maintain a constant state of war against a forever elusive enemy – has to sacrifice free will for the sake of greater defense.
On Dec. 31, the United States Immigration Service instituted a new system to identify and track foreign nationals here on a visa. Specifically, all subjects and citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe and Japan who stay longer than 90 days must be entered into the new system. Visitors from all other countries also must be entered into the system.
The new system, which has many libertarians up in arms, requires that each visitor with a visa has his or her fingerprints scanned and photograph taken for the record. The system automatically crosschecks the data with a list of known and suspected terrorists.
But does this new technology make us safer or just more monitored? Many will point out that it only affects visitors. This argument does not allow for the real possibility that there soon may come a time when biometrics are a part of everday life. Hollywood certainly has shown us some of the disquieting examples of intrusive surveillance methods that advance technology affords. Orwellian films such as “Gattica” and “Minority Report” warn us that if government and big business are not held in check, our privacy and what we know to be free will could be in jeopardy.
Biometrics are all a part of keeping tabs on people under the guise that the technology used will help prevent identity theft and increase one’s general security. Dell Computer now offers a device that will read your fingerprint and use the scanned data to unlock your computer. Banks are flirting with the idea of using palm scans to act as the key to customer’s ATM accounts. All this new technology might come at significant initial cost, but one thing is clear: it benefits both government and big business more than it does you, and for that reason it’s viewed as a price worth paying.
Critics will rightly point out that our Social Security numbers and photographs taken for driver’s licenses and the like are a mandatory part of our day-to-day existence and can be accessed by those willing to pay. Our privacy should be cherished and protected, and even though biometrics are not the first devices that profile us, they go even further to ensure that others will be able to learn more about us.
This presents us with a great conundrum. Is biometrics not the testament to a free society that has unrestricted access to information? And yet can we really consider ourselves free if our identities are forever subject to the prying eyes of unknowns? The use of biometrics is advancing America toward that very paradox.
-The writer is a junior
majoring in Political Science.