Exploring Digital Culture

5. Surveillance of the state

Connections to identity, autonomy and Foucault's notion of biopower

Thu 06 Nov 2014
Alexandra Woelfe 

Do you know a surveillance technology that claims to be infallible, universal to everybody, unique to everyone, permanent and, moreover collectable and measurable? (Mordini & Massari, 2013: 488). These are some of the characteristics attributed to biometric technologies.

But what is it exactly? According to the International Biometric Society, biometric “refer to the emerging field of technology devoted to identification of individuals using biological traits, such as those based on retinal or iris scanning, fingerprints, or face recognition” (International Biometric Society: http://www.biometricsociety.org/about/definition-of-biometrics/). The unique feature of our biological traits are transformed into data, inscribed in our passport, official documents or stocked in servers detained by States and are used to control the people’s identity such as travelers between countries or migrants… I will develop, in this blog post, some reflections about how these technologies are connected to identity, autonomy and Foucault’s notion of biopower.

One of the important shifts in the adoption of the biometric technologies is to frame the problem in terms of risk management instead of reaction to a crime (Amoore, 2006: 337). According to Foucault, this treatment, reserved before to a specific part of the population such as prisoners, migrants or refugees, is now applied to the whole population in order to secure their lives: it is biopolitics. It is part of Foucault’s ‘normalizing society’ in which the ‘calculated administration of life is the key technology of power’ (Amoore, 2006, 345). Through security for its population, the State exercised a hierarchical control over people through their bodies. It is a system of surveillance: a one-sided gaze of surveillance from above (Mann & Ferenbok, 2013: 33).

Then, the Foucauldian’s notion of biopower is being applied on everyone and they are controlled through their body. Biopower aimed to keep live and make live in order to protect the productive population (Epstein, 2007: 152). However, Foucault’s bodies were seen as undisciplined and unruly and needed to be quantifiable institutional bodies (Mann & Ferenbok, 2013: 23), here with the help of technology the body is a source of accuracy, it is the base for order and security, biometric technologies exercise power through information and over people, their bodies (Aas, 2006: 152).

In that case, the control of your identity and body is not resumed to our official documents, it is a mobile control as long as the agent controlling has the technology to read fingerprints or palm hand and access to the database. It is no longer the individual’s documents which are verified but its body in order to determine if you are the “right” body (Epstein, 2007: 153).

This informatization of the body raises a concern of ‘disembodiment’: defining people as object, identifiable by some characteristics. Identity in this case is not based on biography or self-knowledge but on the body and technologies able to read it (Aas, 2006: 144). The wholeness of the individual is put into question by this difference body/mind, the body does not obey to the mind, to its owner intention. Another mind, a computer, is given voice to the body and is decrypting it (Haraway, 1991: 147). But this redefined identity does not create partial identity or contradictory standpoints as wished by Haraway, one single vision are applied trying to create unified categories and essentialize categories of persons (1991: 149). Then, for the State, a person is reduced to its avatar, a digital subject with digital identifiers (Mordini & Massari, 2008: 495) when he/she is crossing a border, as Giorgio Agamben says, “bodies become marked by ‘biopolitical tatoos’ that distinguish between good and bad citizens” (cited by Aas, 2006: 154).

So, how to resist in front of this loss of autonomy and identity? According to Mann and Ferembock, we can define the situation today as power (the State) is greater than veillance (travelers and citizens) (Mann & Ferenbok, 2013: 30). A form of sous-veillance is meaning: watching from below. People in this society still have a form of agency, they can change the power dynamics by looking back (Mann & Ferenbok, 2013: 19 – 24). A new potential utilization of biometric technologies is: it creates a new global, decentralized, rhyzomatic schemes for personal recognition. It has the potential to create new identities, based on the specificity of each person, its iris, faces instead of the common (discriminatory for some) categories as gender, nationality, names, surnames (Mordini & Massari, 2008: 497-498).


Aas, K. F., 2006, “The Body does not lie’: Identity, risk and trust in technoculture”, Crime Media Culture, vol.2, pp. 143-158.

Amoore, L., 2006, “Biometric borders: Governing mobilities in the war on terror”, Political Geography, vol.25, pp. 336-361.

Epstein, C., 2007, “Guilty Bodies, Productive Bodies, Destructive Bodies: Crossing the Biometric Borders”, International Political Sociology, vol.1, pp.149-164.

Haraway, D., 1991, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, Simians, Cyborg, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, pp.149-181.

Mann & Ferenbok, S & J, 2013, “New Media and the power politics of sousveillance in a surveillance-dominated world”, Surveillance & Society, vol.1, issue ½, pp. 18-34.

Mordini & Massari, E. & S., 2008, “Body, Biometrics and Identity”, Bioethics, vol.22, no.9, pp.488-498.

The International Biometric Society, 2010, Definition of Biometrics, viewed, 13 January 2014: http://www.biometricsociety.org/about/definition-of-biometrics/

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Marina Turco 4. In the Shadow of the Matrix A strategic approach to the transparant society
Dr David Barnard-Wills 6. Stanza An artist's engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control
Joeri Taelman 7. Biopolitics through the internet of bodies The act of looking back might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance
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