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College Quarterly
Winter 2011 - Volume 14 Number 1
Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance
David Lyon
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Back in the Winter of 1993, The College Quarterly featured the first in a two-part series on the role of colleges in maintaining Canadian prosperity in changing economic times. One of the co-authors was Judy Miles. At the time she was Regional Director for B.C. Operations at City University in Vancouver and Top Prize-winner in the Fraser Institute's competition for ideas about promoting efficiency in government. Her suggestion? A national identity card. It seemed to many to be a fine idea at the time, at least it seemed so to law enforcement authorities and the right-wing think tank which sponsored the competition.

In the subsequent two decades, domestic data collection, storage and retrieval has more than blossomed and bloomed. Its success has been prompted by two sets of events: extraordinary technological innovation and dramatic political transformations. In the early 1990s, desk-top computers, cable television and cell phones were not exactly in their infancy, but they weren’t much past adolescence. Come to think of it, some of us still had rotary-dial telephones. And, of course, the prospect of implanting computer chips under the skin of young children and pedophiles that linked potential predators and prey to Global Positioning Systems was still something like science fiction. So, too, was the burgeoning technology of iris-scans to say nothing of fMRIs which are commonly regarded as the next step to seeing what’s happening inside your brain.

Today, those of us living in or near large cities in Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim are quite used to being on closed-circuit television as we drive along highways, stroll through shopping malls and enter office or apartment buildings. We unthinkingly order books, clothing and electronic devices of our own on-line. Our academic, library, dental, medical, psychiatric, employment, vehicle, banking, income tax and criminal records are all in cold storage ready to be retrieved by almost anyone at almost any time. You do not have to paranoid to worry about such things. Being mildly sentient will do.

Add to this technical capacity the political will to assemble informational profiles, and to monitor movements, purchasing habits, communications patterns and preferred Internet choices, and George Orwell’s 1984 becomes “the good old days.” According to some accounts, privacy is almost an impossibility and anonymity is an antique curiosity. After all, as you read this on-line, someone somewhere is probably keeping a virtual eye on your “hit” on this website and keeping count of the seconds or minutes you stay with us.

In Identifying Citizens, David Lyon explores just one of these comprehensive and all too frequently intrusive technologies. He concentrates on the simple ID card, and the results are what used to be called “disturbing” or “unsettling” before they became ubiquitous.

Of course, (almost) everyone acknowledges the convenience of credit cards, debit cards, social security cards, health insurance cards, library cards and plastic driving licenses. The paperless world is simply “assumed” and few can doubt the efficiency of electronic record-keeping. What fewer people do is consider the implications of these devices, especially because a new generation of almost any information technology is on the way before we have had time to reflect on how the old one has altered some aspect of our lives. In fact, there is some possibility that plastic cards themselves will soon become obsolete as biometric scanners and markers follow us about and meticulously chronicle our beliefs and behaviour without the danger that we may inadvertently lose or consciously “discard” the personalized tracking instruments that keep our every move in the public and private sector databanks and analysis systems.

If we as citizen-consumers (the line being increasingly blurred) do not think seriously about these matters, we can rest assured that the authorities do. Aggregate data is kept so that the local Walmart (or at least its computerized inventory system) knows precisely when to order its cheap shirts and sugared cereals to ensure that its shelves are never empty. Individual data are also kept, often for undisclosed purposes.

The path to what social critics like Gore Vidal has called the “national security state” has been very much a zig-zag affair. From the crude “snitch” system of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s to the multi-trillion dollar efforts of the post-9/11 era, the enthusiasm of governments to build bureaucratic empires and the sullen resistance of at least some civil libertarians have varied. Yes, the shock of the attacks on American soil in 2001 and the resulting “war on terror” were exploited to the full by domestic and foreign intelligence agencies eager to take advantage of the “politics of fear” to expand their budgets and their bureaucratic empires. Nevertheless, public scepticism about the effectiveness as well as the efficacy of, for example, airport delays has grown apace. So, come to think of it, has “Wikileaks.” Similarly, cries by opportunistic politicians with a “tough on crime” agenda have largely been undermined as it has become increasing clear that crime rates are falling, lengthier incarceration does not lower recidivism and the authorities are displaying an increasingly blatant disrespect for civil liberties (never mind that the crime rate in London, England, home of the highest concentration of CCTV has not dropped despite 24/7 video). In some cases, the flow of information goes both ways. So, in the United States, Canada, France and Japan, public resistance to national ID cards has slowed the process of inventorying citizens and even Great Britain has scrapped its ID card program and National Identification Registry. The debate goes on.

Proponents of such measures often rely upon the naïve argument that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. The issues at stake are, however, far more serious. The one that David Lyon addresses most successfully concerns the matter of citizenship. Increasingly, governments in Western democracies have encouraged the role of governance to be an amalgam of protector and service provider. The state is seen as a combination of armed authority and consumer centre for public goods. The measure of success is therefore tied to quantitative measures of arrests and convictions on the one hand and “customer satisfaction” with whatever array of public sector benefits (education, health care, pensions, transportation, communication, recreation) is demanded by the citizen-consumers on the other.

David Lyon has a commendable record as a commentator and critic of citizen surveillance. In this book, he links the methods and protocols to a core issue in modern democracies—the meaning of citizenship itself. It is an extrapolation of many of the ideas and observations that were covered in a companion volume, Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective which he co-edited with Colin Bennett in 2008 (New Brunswick NJ: Routledge). Its main point is that digitalized identification systems do not merely track people but now come largely to define them, at least for purposes of the state and the corporate economy. In this process, individuals are constructed as foci for expressed preferences and as loci for political potentials.

As a subscriber to National Geographic Magazine in 1956, I was one sort of person. As a subscriber to Canadian Forum and the Saturday Review of Literature in 1964, I fit a different profile. As a reader of Canadian Dimension, Monthly Review and Our Generation in the 1980s, I could have been constructed according to a third profile. Accurate or not, certain political judgements could have been made by authorities with access to that data. Lyon is interested in how people are documented for commercial and governmental purposes. Such documentation has been assembled before. We should all know about IBM and the Holocaust.

What is at issue here is whether the accumulated data can be used to delegitimize the person as citizen. The issue may be simply one of being an “undocumented” worker in the USA with children facing deportation after a lifetime of speaking English and knowing no culture other than the American in, say, Arizona or southern California. Or, it may be one facing actual members of the organized crime cartels that profit so handsomely from the criminalization of recreational drugs. It could involve terrorists or people falsely thought to be terrorists. One way or another, the ID systems already in play feed into patterns of profiling and discrimination that soon affect opportunities for housing, employment and due process in the criminal justice system.

Just as Hitler used the Hollerith systems (Watson’s precursors to the machines of the IBM Empire) to sort Jews from Gentiles, Communists, Socialists, Liberals and any other disreputable gender, ethnic, ideological or even medical identities into traceable commodities, so Lyon says that we are now engaged in an advanced form of “social sorting.” Though initially justified or at least defended in terms of local protection agencies or counter-terrorism measures, the contemporary version of the “securitization of identity” permeates all aspects of identity.

So, in 1973, I was stopped at the border between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. I suppose I must have looked like a drug smuggler because my 1970 Chevrolet El Camino was ransacked and, after a futile six hours of searching for something more lethal than a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, I was grudgingly allowed to pass on to a meeting of the Popular Culture Association in Indianapolis.

A couple of decades later, on my way to teach a course in the post-graduate Diplomacy and Military Studies program at Hawai’i Pacific University in 2006, I was held back, sequestered and denied access to a United Airlines flight from Toronto to Denver and on to Honolulu. A day or so later, I passed through without comment or concern. As well, I retain vivid recollections of hauling luggage around San Francisco airport at 3:00 am carrying my shoes and belt in one hand and seeking clearance to board a commercial flight to Toronto. And now, yet an additional four years since the events of 11 September, 2001, I still think more than twice about crossing the border from Fort Erie to Buffalo for their “amazing” chicken wings.”

The difference? There has been a progression of incivility. At least the border guards at Detroit had the courtesy to admit that their suspicions were groundless. The course in Honolulu had to be delayed until I was finally granted admission, this time via Houston, and there was nothing akin to an acknowledgement, much less an apology. Now, the expectation of surliness is seemingly permanent and the memory of the fate of Meyer Arar is never far away.

The point? None of this matters much as far as the annoyance and occasional humiliation I’ve faced is concerned. Far worse has occurred to far more worthy (or disreputable) people. When, however, people like the American journalist William Worthy lost their passports over an errant trip to Cuba, or scholars such as Mulford Q. Sibley were denied entry to Canada because some faceless authority deemed them unfit to give a scheduled lecture at the University of Manitoba, such authoritarian displays won national attention. Now, they seem routine. Ordinary stupidity and systemic arrogance are pretty much assumed in human affairs, but they become increasingly exasperating when encouraged by political ideology thinly disguised as patriotism and motivated by fear.

What’s more bothersome is the degree to which such invasions have insinuated themselves into our political lives—in the very best sense of the term. Matters of violation of privacy are one thing. What Lyon calls the financial profits of the “card cartel” are another. The ways in which government agents and corporate opportunists advance their interests by undermining the common weal and the liberties of individuals within it are constant bothers against which a democratic citizenry must remain vigilant. The new ID schemes are, however, ontologically different. They change what it is to be an authority and a “citizen.”

David Lyon does not approach the ideal of citizenship from an abstract assumption of what it is to be an Aristotelian zoon politikon. He is more clearly rooted in modernity and works with the assumption that citizenship may not compel participation in politics, but it at least encourages it and it certainly permits it. Citizenship, by these lights, is not just something bordered by consumer choice. It is not merely to have or not to have this or that “entitlement” or public benefit or service as though government was some sort of overarching public department store to which admission is voluntary and within which goods were proffered according to consumer demand, not public need, much less public virtue.

It is, therefore, one thing to notice that the items available for purchase in a private enterprise will appear and be priced according to market values. It is quite another to decide that there are certain goods that ought not to be assessed according to free market determinants. In Canada, for example, public education, medical service, or, for that matter, communications and transportation infrastructures are provided and regulated according to a recognizable standard of public good. Like the taxes that sustain them, they are the price to be paid for civilization. According to Lyon’s analysis, the public domain is systematically undermined by the increasing dominance of the private economy and the market mentality that accompanies it, and the private economy increasingly hems in and undermines the public domain. Curiously, the private economy also undermines the possibility of privacy for the individual, now also robbed of the full range of political citizenship.

Some of the ways in which this process works include biometric technologies which render specific groups vulnerable to special surveillance according to social stereotypes and the consequent interest of police and “intelligence” services. There is more to this than a highly successful and comprehensive form of “fingerprinting,” which used to require some authorized justification and the physical meeting of a hand and an ink pad. Lyons, however, points out that the function of biometric detailing is to evade that kind of physical encounter and to construct a simulacrum of the human body, perfect in every DNA-based detail. At stake is the integrity of the human body. It is more than an invasion of privacy. It is body invasion. It is the process in which we all become, in Arthur Kroker’s telling phrase, “data in cold storage.” Yet as a society, we take none of this—not the technology and not the reformulation of the concept of privacy as it affects public policy—seriously. We barely worry about the frequently erroneous information or the blatant misuse of information as it endangers the vulnerable amongst us. We do not reflect at all about how we are being literally reconstructed in data bases, and the extent to which that reconstructed digital entity is becoming more real that ourselves in our organicity. Our virtual selves, composed of bits and bytes of our informational “footprints” are becoming more and more the composition of bureaucratic algorithms and less and less the manifestation of whatever may be meant by personality and conscious human purpose.

If there is any substantive hope, it lies in the limits of the imagination and application of knowledge by the authorities. We may be preserved from the worst elements of a data-driven dystopia by nothing more common than the preternatural dopiness of the authorities who have dreamt up the devices now used to monitor consumers and disempower citizens. Lyon, at least, takes some small comfort in the notion that the map is not the territory, the name is not the thing that is named and, by extension, the disembodied version of individuals is nothing more than an abstraction composed of parts of our evident actions and apparent adventures. This, however, may be small comfort indeed, for Lyon closes his work with a summary of the strange new concept of “cybercitizenship.”

According to the most optimistic, information technologies such as are present in the “social media” may have transformationally liberating consequences. We have certainly heard much about how the mass of little people energized the United States and helped sweep Barack Obama into the Oval Office. More significantly, perhaps, we have seen these same media used to organize social and political protests and even to bring about revolutionary changes in North Africa and, potentially, the Near and Middle East. In my view, the matter is not yet certain. Clever innovators such as Howard Dean, the American politician most closely associated with using the social media as a fund-raising tool may yet be overshadowed by the US Supreme Court’s granting of citizenship rights to major corporations, turning political campaigns into exercises in corporate finance that will leave small donors behind as the invoice for a successful presidential campaign approaches $1 billion.

Lyon has presented an engrossing and enlightening document that describes and explains how information technology provides those with the wit and the will to use these devices for the purpose of social control. In the end, however, he is left merely to hope that the excesses of the new technology will be restrained by an “ethics of care,” without seeming to deal fully with the kind of political change that would make such ethics enforceable. In the end, more is at stake than the abuses of racial or religious profiling and the investigation and invasion of the person by data mongers eager to determine which brand of laundry detergent or which political “talking points” will lead to electoral success. To explore the next phase of digitalization of the body and mind is the next challenge—if, that is, it is not already too late.


Howard A. Doughty teaches Globalization and Political Economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca

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