By Frances Webber
On 6 January 2010, skilled workers from outside the EU became the latest group to need a biometric identity card in order to extend their stay in the UK. This involves attending one of the dozen or so 'biometric enrolment centres' in the UK to have a digital photograph and ten digital finger scans taken. By 2011, the government aims that all foreign nationals over the age of 6, legally in the UK for more than six months, possess an identity card with digital photograph and fingerprints on it, together with details of the person's conditions of stay, and the biometric ID card will be the official passport to employment and to services such as health, education and welfare benefits.
There has been provision for identity checking of immigrants since the 1971 Immigration Act, which allowed police and immigration officers to take steps deemed reasonably necessary for 'photographing, measuring or otherwise identifying' those detained for removal. But large-scale biometric identity checking only started in 1993, with the introduction of fingerprinting of asylum applicants arriving in the UK (including children of five and above). Fingerprints were checked against a Europe-wide fingerprint database, EURODAC, to ascertain whether the asylum applicant had previously sought asylum in another EU country, and if so, he or she was sent back there under the 1990 Dublin Convention. Then, in 1999 and 2002, fingerprinting powers were extended to other categories besides asylum claimants, with more powers of compulsion. In 2006, fingerprinting of visa applicants was begun, and by January 2008 compulsory fingerprinting had been extended to all applicants for a UK visa anywhere in the world. In November 2009, fingerprints began to be taken from arriving passengers, to check them against the prints in the visa.
Meanwhile, measures to incorporate immigrants who had arrived in the UK before the introduction of biometric visas were introduced.Those applying for settlement as the spouse or partner of someone settled here have needed an identity card since November 2008; students, post-graduate doctors and dentists, and various other categories of long-term migrants, had the requirement applied to them in March 2009.
Fingerprints and digital photographs taken by the UK Border and Agency (UKBA) are to be stored on the National Biometric Identity Store (NBIS), to be built by the Identity and Passport Service under a £265 million contract with IBM. Fingerprints are checked against the police national fingerprint database, Ident1. In April 2009, UKBA said it planned to develop appropriate data sharing protocols to share fingerprints and other data with the US, Canada and Australia.
The UKBA says that the ID card is proof of permission to stay, helping education providers to see what students are entitled to, enabling migrants to confirm their identity and the rights they have to study or work here, and to access public services. It helps to protect the identities of genuine applicants, making it easier for them to prove their identity, status and entitlements, while helping the UKBA tackle 'immigration abuse, child trafficking, illegal working and identity fraud'.
So what's the problem?
There are numerous practical objections, as well as principled ones. First, such a vast biometrics database is novel and relatively untested, increasing the scope for errors. Second, a large amount of information about individuals is being processed, centralised and made available to a variety of agencies both in the UK and abroad. Third is the involvement of the private sector, which provides the technology and performs many of the functions of government, including taking the biometrics at visa application centres abroad. This increases the risk of improper use of the data, and means less control and accountability for the process. Fourth, from press reports, it would appear that most document fraud involves the creation of false identity documents to present to employers in support of the right to work. Biometric documents can be lost, stolen and tampered with, just like any other documents, and there is nothing to prevent forged biometric documents being presented as 'proof' of entitlement to work. The only measure which would stop this is for employers to have to fingerprint new non-EU workers to check that their prints match those on the biometric document.
This illustration points to one of the deeper, principled objections. The inexorable logic of exclusion lies at the heart of the project. Status-based entitlement means more discrimination, more racism, more Black Britons having to prove their right to work or simply to be here, And what about those who don't have that right? Entrenchment of the logic of exclusion overrides help for those who need it, recognition of human skills and capacities, and citizenship or immigration status becomes the defining, the supreme value. It doesn't matter how talented, loyal, committed, hard-working you are; without the magic documents, the magic status, you can't work. Not only can't you work, you can't eat. You aren't eligible for any benefits, you can't get education for your kids, you can't go to the doctor ...
Of course, this already describes the reality for thousands of 'sans-papiers' in the UK, Europe, the US and the rest of the rich world. What biometrics are doing is pushing us a step further along the path, where life is made more and more impossible for those without legal status, who become ever more 'non-persons', while those who are entitled to be here will have to prove it in more and more situations. Already, the holders of ID cards are under a legal duty to notify the authorities when they change their name, their gender, their nationality or their facial appearance, on pain of a £1,000 fine and curtailment of their permission to stay. And with information exchange across Europe and beyond, how long before someone falling foul of immigration law in one country, in no matter how minor a way, is persona non grata and so inadmissible to much of the world? This doesn't take into account the risk of 'false positives' - errors in data systems leading to wrongful refusals which are impossible to challenge.
Responsibilities of third parties
Biometrics are likely to lead to more onerous duties on anyone coming into contact with migrants. Already, 'education providers' (universities and colleges) wishing to enrol foreign students have had to give undertakings to inform on them to the UKBA if they miss ten lectures or seminars. It isn't a criminal offence to refuse - but the institution concerned won't be able to enrol any more foreign students, who for many universities represent a significant part of the student body and a major source of income. Since 2002, marriage registrars have been under a duty to report suspicious marriages, and local authorities can be ordered to inform the UKBA about illegally resident migrants in their area. Since 1996, employers have been penalised for failing to check that those they employ are entitled to work in the UK. Even before that, in 1987, carriers were penalised for bringing in passengers without valid travel documents. The first carrier sanctions were subject to exemptions if the person carried turned out to be a refugee - but for a long time now there have been no such exemptions from penalty. For carriers and employers alike who don't perform the document checks, no distinction is drawn for humanitarian motives; the penalties are the same whether the motive was commercial or solidarity-driven. How long will it be before similar duties are extended to NHS staff, to private landlords, to school principals, to librarians and shopkeepers? And how long before service providers are required to check the fingerprints of customers, clients, patients, with scanners like those already in use in prisons, libraries and in some other public buildings?
The biometrics programme is only one part of the project of surveillance which, as Tony Bunyan argues in 'Just over the horizon: surveillance and the state in Europe' (Race & Class, January 2010), is turning the EU into the most surveilled and monitored region in the world. The Schengen Information System (SIS) has over half a million terminals located in the security services of the member states, and currently contains over 30 million alerts (for wanted persons, stolen vehicles and stolen or lost identity papers and documents etc). EURODAC held a million and a half fingerprint files in September 2009, while the travel document information for 147 million passengers had been captured in the e-borders project by the end of January 2010. E-borders is currently checking nearly half all passenger movements in and out of the UK, with 111 carriers providing data covering nearly 2,500 routes. By the end of 2010, immigration minister Phil Woolas expects all commercial airlines to provide passengers' details and copies of their travel documents for checking by UKBA before embarkation. In a further three years, more detailed information about individual passengers, including credit card details, will be provided in 100 million passenger name records (PNR). The idea of e-borders is for officials to check all intending travellers against watchlists of suspected terrorists and criminals. But the National Borders Targeting Centre, which was due to open in December 2009, is running late because match analysts who will check the lists - who only need to have two GCSEs and will earn £15,000 a year for deciding who is prevented from travelling and which policing or intelligence agency to notify - need more training.
With e-borders, with SIS and with biometrics, the British government (in common with those of all the countries of the 'rich world') is controlling ever more tightly those it permits to travel to and live here, and reducing to almost nothing the 'margin of tolerance' of those without legal status. We have all become accustomed to producing our passports when we get a new job, or open a bank account, or even join a library. For some of us, biometrics - iris or facial recognition - means open sesame for the electronic 'fast-track' gate at airports. We have seen more stops and searches, and identity checks, on the streets and at tube stations. In the past couple of years, we have seen a dramatic increase in immigration raids on businesses - overwhelmingly and disproportionately small, BME-owned high street restaurants, take-aways, nail bars, car washes and provisions stores. Employers are 'named and shamed' on the UKBA website as well as being fined up to £10,000 for each undocumented worker, while employees using false documents to obtain low-paid work are sent to prison for nine months or more and deported as 'foreign national criminals' - with no regard for their desperation, their families' reliance on their remittances for survival, or other powerful motives for resorting to minimum-wage work.
But, as Bunyan points out, we are all - citizens, denizens and undocumented alike - watched in the surveillance society and the policing state, where our accountability to government agencies far exceeds theirs to us. It's just that migrants, migrant communities, the poor and marginalised - the ones who understand through their everyday experience what it means - have no voice and no power to say no.