Biometric Identification: Potential Problem for Minorities and the Poor?


Home / Biometric Identification: Potential Problem for Minorities and the Poor?
Participating in public life should be a given. Image by Taliesin.

Participating in public life should be a given. Image by Taliesin.

Do you feel like you are falling behind in your ability to interface with the world at large?  The less-fortunate may feel that pain more keenly, and if a new law requiring biometric identification passes, it will only get worse.

Could newly-proposed legislation push those on the bottom rung entirely off the social ladder?  If we, as a society, require some types of identification for basic activities, what happens to those that cannot, or choose not, to participate?

Biometric Data and Citizenship

Following a 2008 rule, the Bureau of Consular Affairs announced “biometrics” or “photographs and fingerprints” are required for  “applicants for re-entry permits and refugee travel documents.”  The government is now considering new legislation that would expand that mission.

David Kravets of Wired,  a tech website, reported on new legislation that would require the creation of a “federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.”  Initially, they intend the data mandated by the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act for screening applicants for employment to determine immigration status.  Passed by the Senate in June, 2013, the legislation has not yet come up for vote in the House of Representatives.

Similar laws have been enacted to identify voters. Dr. Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago reports that “[a]bout 1 in 6 African American youths, and 1 in 12 Latino youths reported that the lack of required identification prevented them from voting.”  Similar results were found in Texas by Dr. Gabriel Sanchez using data gathered in 2011. The right to vote, enshrined in the constitution, is endangered by laws that require photo identification.

As Forrest Wickman explained in Slate, minorities disproportionately lack photo identification: “Minorities are less likely to have driver’s licenses because they are more likely to be poor and to live in urban areas. If you can’t afford a car, or if you don’t need one because you take the bus or subway, you are less likely to have a driver’s license.”  Cohen is in agreement. She reports, “More than 85% of white youths surveyed had a driver’s license, while only 71% of Black youths and 67% of Latino youths did.”

Biometric Data and Mission Creep

Kravets notes that for now “the legislation allows the database to be used solely for employment purposes.”  While the biometric database is originally intended to guard against illegal immigration, “ privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet”  according  Kravets. If photo identification is tied to other everyday activities such as those Kravets lists it is likely the poor who will miss out.

One Reuters/Ipsos poll found that “[f]our percent of those in households making less than $25,000 per year said they lack a valid photo ID, twice as high as the 2 percent of those in households making $50,000 or more.”

Do You Have Your ID?

Cowen’s research found that African Americans were more likely to be asked to show identification, even if the state did not have a voter identification law in place.  Cowen’s statement about voting applies to other aspects of communal life, “It doesn’t matter whether it results from conscious or unconscious bias, the result is that people of color are being disenfranchised and our nation has an obligation to put an end to it.”

The use of biometric  identifiers to weed out criminals and terrorists has its appeal. But should the mission creep into other spheres?  Already, requiring proof of identity, which can be difficult to obtain without money or transportation or certified copies of documents such as birth-certificates,  has made the world inhospitable to the most marginalized.

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