Getting Ashcrofted

I stood in a dim basement office facing a rack of electronic equipment. An employee in the ID card office grasped my thumb and pulled it toward the glass top of a small scanner. "Your hands are wet," she said, turning on a miniature fan. I forced myself to breathe deeply while my hands dried out.

My fingers always get clammy and cold when I'm scared, which I suppose I shouldn't have been. I've never been arrested. And I've never been fingerprinted -- until now.

I work for a nonprofit in space donated by other companies. Next week we move to the offices of one of the biggest corporations in America. They happen to fingerprint all their tenants.

I tried my best to talk my way out of it. I even considered working from home. But it wasn't going to fly. I respect the work I do, and if I wanted to continue it (not to mention eat and pay rent), I was going to have to put civil liberties on the back burner. But I was still scared. And as it has ever since I was a child, my body revealed the fear I tried to mask.

Once my hands dried out, the employee rolled my fingertips over the scanner of the Electronic Fingerprint Capture Station (ECFS) 2100. The loops and whorls that make up my prints appeared as oversized black patterns on a computer screen in front of me. Who needs ink?

The company that developed the ECFS recently changed its name to Integrated Biometric Technology. Everybody wants to cash in on the marketability of biometrics, the technology of identifying people based on biological traits. Biometrics extends far beyond electronic fingerprinting to retinal scans and, perhaps most controversial, face recognition from video surveillance. Biometrics is Big Brother, Inc.

There are some proven successes in this field. Fingerprint databases helped crack the D.C. sniper case. The FBI got a print from a shell casing left behind in a fatal liquor store shooting in Montgomery, Alabama. Agents ran it through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and pulled alleged teen sniper John Lee Malvo's print. Malvo and his mother had been fingerprinted by the INS. They then found police records connecting Malvo's mother and 41-year-old suspect John Allen Muhammad.

But fingerprint evidence is not infallible. In cases where prints are smudged, IDs are a judgment call made by individual law enforcement agents. A year ago in the case U.S. v. Plaza, a Philadelphia court even ruled that fingerprints were not scientific evidence, but an art. That judge would love the early feedback on face recognition

This month, researchers from the Department of Defense and other government agencies released the "Face Recognition Vendor Test 2002," mandated by the PATRIOT act. Their headline cheered systems that could identify 90 percent of people caught on tape, but that only counted the top contenders; the worst company only identified 34 percent of faces correctly in indoor lighting, with an average score among systems of only 68 percent.

All the products worked miserably on outdoor pictures, and all produced false positives. Those in the hip-hop generation beware: Even the top surveillance systems had their worst ID rate with young Americans. The top three had less than a 65 percent accuracy rate for people aged 18-27.

The bad news about face recognition hasn't stopped the Washington, D.C., police department from building a high-tech command center to watch dozens of surveillance cameras placed around the downtown. The system, first activated on September 11, 2001, has been bashed by the city council. But a March 10 article by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post depicts residents of a crime-plagued neighborhood asking for cameras. They're tired of their cars being stolen and their tires being slashed.

The residents of Benning Ridge have a point. It's not enough to protest surveillance. The same people who are at risk of bad surveillance also bear the brunt of street crime. Civil libertarians need to expand their mission to ensure the people whose liberty they're trying to protect get decent police protection as well.

Meanwhile, I feel like a suspect for some crime I haven't committed yet. A private company may have gathered my fingerprints, but the government's new Total Information Awareness system will allow virtually unfettered access to private databases for "anti-terror" purposes. (Check their nifty diagram.) A friend of mine says I've been "Ashcrofted" -- forced to give up my privacy for pretty much no reason at all. Maybe as more of us are Ashcrofted, we'll ask how we can balance liberty and safety instead of giving up rights for no return.

Farai Chideya is the founder of She writes this weekly column for AlterNet.

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