Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Smoke And Mirrors of the Eco-Politics of Biometrics at the Border


Ana Valdivia
Departmental Research Lecturer in AI, Government & Policy at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Ana Valdivia. Ana is a Departmental Research Lecturer in AI, Government & Policy at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). Ana investigates how datafication is transforming political, social and ecological worlds. Building on her experience as a mathematician and computer scientist, her interest lies in investigating power relationships in algorithmic governance and how public and private actors are fuelling the future with AI. You can find out more about her work at https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/ana-valdivia/.

The indoors of a data centre
The indoors of a data centre (Photo: Ana Valdivia)

Biometrics is a technology largely criticised by scholars, activists and journalists because of their impact on fundamental rights. Biometric systems that aim at identifying subjects or verifying their identity through bodily samples have been historically used by governments, empires and states to record undesirable and deceitful subjects such as migrants, colonised individuals or criminals. For instance, Dublin Regulation is reinforced at the EU border through a large-scale biometric system (EURODAC) to restrict freedom of movement by identifying migrants through their fingerprints. In the last decade, concerns about data privacy, surveillance and algorithmic bias of biometrics have focused the attention of these critical debates while Dublin Regulation is still blocking people on the move. Today, given the current climate crisis scenario, there is an emerging concept that could potentially become the next focus of debates on biometrics: sustainability.

Criti-hype is a concept developed by STS scholar Lee Vinsel to raise awareness about “wishful worries” in technologies, i.e. “problems that it would be nice to have, in contrast to the actual agonies of the present”. As exposed in Economies of Virtue, criti-hype is “the kinds of self-serving criticism ‘that both feeds and feeds on hype’ concerning emerging technologies”.  In this scenario, climate change is becoming the catchy theme for crafting a critique of technology at large, and of biometrics more specifically. That is, analysing biometric systems from the standpoint of their environmental sustainability. It entails asking questions such as:  How much is the carbon footprint of fingerprints? What is the carbon emission of EURODAC or of the forthcoming EES? If on the one side these are indisputably key questions, on the other scholars, activists and journalists might fall in the trap of distracting  narratives on biometrics, by advocating for greener more sustainable biometrics. Indeed, developing a critique which is exclusively centred on the carbon footprint of fingerprints or facial recognition could led to a misleading eco-political analysis on biometrics, which downplays the fact that biometrics is used to enhance racialised classification and reinforce legal mechanisms. The use of biometrics to implement laws such as the Dublin Regulation has been the target of critical analyses and of political campaigns. However, most recently critiques on the use of biometrics at the border have shifted from the infringement of migrants’ freedom of movement towards a purely focus on smoke and mirrors concerns such as data privacy or algorithmic bias.

On one hand, in this piece I argue that an eco-political critique of biometric should consider its whole lifecycle. This is because carbon footprint estimation methods are usually problematic as they do not consider the whole lifecycle of the activity they are measuring.  Biometrics is a technology that needs large quantity of data to train their models, which in turn is usually stored in large-scale data centres. Recently, scholars have shown that data centres water footprint is enormous and usually not disclosed by big tech companies. But the lifecycle of biometrics is not only about data centres; it also involves the extraction of minerals such as lithium, silicon or copper to build its infrastructure which implies land degradation and water resources exploitation. In fact, a critical analysis of the ecological and political impact of biometrics should also consider the environmental impact of natural resources extracted to manufacture biometric devices. Moreover, this lifecycle should also include the last stage in the process: what does it happen to biometrics infrastructure and its devices when  no longer useful? Electronic waste dumps are placed in territories of the so-called “Global South” and have a negative impact on local communities and territories. As some environmental journalists have claimed, e-waste dumps contaminate rivers and soil due to the toxicity of elements in digital devices.

But a critique towards the eco-politics of biometrics should also move beyond natural resources extractivism and environmental damage. As the authors of Technoprecarious argue, we should also take into account different forms of human labour exploitation in the different stages of this lifecycle: miners that extract the mineral for biometric infrastructures, data labellers that label large biometric datasets, security staff in data centres that protect the biometric data and workers in electronic waste dumps. They are connected through different layers of precarity in the biometric political and economic landscape. In fact, the European Union has invested 100 million EUR on designing and building the infrastructure for their biometric interoperability architecture.  An eco-political critique should consider the energy and water consumption that processing these databases is going to cost. It should explore the profit made by private actors involved in the migration industry. But it also requires investigating which other companies are participating in the whole lifecycle of biometrics. Who capitalises on the migration industry by extracting natural resources to build biometric databases, fingerprint scan devices or facial recognition cameras? What are the labour conditions of the workers working on these mines? Where do large industries ship their biometric infrastructure when it is no longer useful?

On the other hand, the ecological and political impact of the lifecycle of biometrics should not become the main target of critical debates about biometrics at the border. Otherwise, we will run the risk of falling again in the criti-hype of biometrics and migration. Instead of boosting techno-hype campaigns and promote steam and mirrors of biometrics, it is key to draw attention to migrants’ struggles and claims for fundamental rights, such as the right to safe routes or food. Critical scholars, activists and journalists should avoid falling in the criti-hypes of biometrics by not focusing purely on sustainability or other concerns such as data privacy, surveillance or algorithmic bias. While sustainable and green biometrics could potentially become the next criti-hype concept, Dublin Regulation is still blocking people on the move and anti-asylum laws are being proposed. At the border, the object of criticism should not be concentrated solely on biometrics but the legal mechanisms that states develop to restrict or prevent freedom of movement and right to seek asylum.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Valdivia. (2023) Smoke And Mirrors of the Eco-Politics of Biometrics at the Border. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/smoke-and-mirrors-eco-politics-biometrics-border. Accessed on: 18/07/2024

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