Facing up to the future

Smile – you’ve just given away all your personal information! The Forumist considers how biometric technology becoming part of everyday life might not be as attractive as it sounds.



We’ve become a race devoted to capturing everything about our lives, an urge fuelled by digital technology that we once thought would only exist in sci-fi movies. And these days, the rise of this “capture culture” is allowing society to do more than just save memories: the technology becoming available is promising us access to the future.


One of the newest advancements is the personal and commercial use of biometric technology, such as fingerprint scans and facial-recognition systems. This technology is designed to measure information about living human bodies and can use algorithms to turn this information into digital codes. The information that these devices collect can then be compared against a database, making it possible to verify the identity of the person in front of the apparatus.



Although originally designed to improve border security and as a military tool, such technology is being increasingly used for personal phones, laptops, games and apps. When you use your fingerprint or face to access your phone, biometrics are being measured. Ever noticed the geometric lines that quickly appear on your face when you add a Snapchat filter to your photo? Those lines indicate Snapchat’s use of facial-recognition technology. More and more, devices are requiring us to present our biometric information, turning those sci-fi fantasies into reality.


Once it was revolutionary to capture a visual image on a photograph, now technology can even recognise if you are the true owner of a phone. Our ongoing devotion to capturing everything is designed to provide society with ease of use, convenience and feelings of security, but it doesn’t hurt to take a critical look at what this technology means, or where it comes from.



The rise of biometric technology has been going on for more than 15 years now. Biometrics are frequently referred to as the new holy grail in security technology, as they can recognise incredibly large numbers of people from databases. Drones often having built-in facial-recognition systems that aim to identify people the military consider a “target”. At European airports, people from the global South are asked in disproportionate numbers to give away their biometric information when they want to enter the Schengen area. This raises the question of who are biometric technologies actually making the world safer and more convenient for?

This context might feel very different from biometrics’ use in a personal context. Most people will know it as both an easy and safe way to store your data and access your devices. The idea behind it is convincing: someone can hack your password and steal your phone, but your face cannot be stolen. But does this military heritage of facial-recognition technology matter as it becomes something we can all access?



At first glance, smiling at your phone doesn’t particularly remind users of the way in which facial recognition is used in drone warfare. However, the context in which this technology was originally designed should be kept in mind by consumers, especially with regards to privacy and information. Initially, such systems were designed to pick out suspicious people – people who had been categorised according to certain biases and opinions. Keeping these origins in mind, giving your personal information away freely could be seen as controversial, especially if the technology were to fall into the wrong hands eventually. The question is, then, it is worth giving up your privacy in exchange for a funny filter? While the designers of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the iPhone X have stated that the biometric information of its users won’t be saved in a database, privacy concerns about the new feature shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as paranoia.



Besides, a strong devotion to biometric technology means assuming your technology is able to know who you are – that is, understand your identity – simply based on your outward appearance. Indeed, companies using this technology to state that phones “will learn who you are”. But this type of biometric identification is based on algorithms with binary codes, and only attaches your identity to your physicality – something represented by just a small part of your body – your fingerprint or face.

We must keep in mind that identity and personal information are tied to so much more than a machine’s view of your appearance. Identity is made up of so many amazing factors – what we do, what we say, where we go and even who we love. It is important to remember that identity depends both on how we perceive ourselves and how other humans perceive us – and this cannot be accomplished by technology alone. 

Words by Rosa Wevers