Shoshana Amielle Magnet, When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity

By Baggiarini, Bianca | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Shoshana Amielle Magnet, When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity


Baggiarini, Bianca, Canadian Review of Sociology


SHOSHANA AMIELLE MAGNET, When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001, 224 p.

Since 9/11, the biometrics industry became extremely profitable when proliferating concerns with security offered new markets for expansion. As a result, biometrics has emerged as an integral feature of how Canada and the United States imagine and practice security. The purpose of When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity is to demonstrate how biometric technology, through its reliance on predetermined categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability, reinscribes relations of power and domination. Biometrics works through its ongoing attempts to fix subjects to static identity categories, and this is especially pertinent given Shoshanna Amielle Magnet's main premise that human bodies are not biometrifiable.

Henceforth, the tension between the application of biometric technology and its incompatibility with the human body provides the fruit of the book. Using failure as a narrative framework allows the author to explain how despite persistent mechanical breakdown, failure is productive in terms of what it accomplishes for commercial and state actors. By treating these breakdowns as ordinary rather than exceptional, the author teases out the inconsistencies inherent within biometric technology when it is applied to sociopolitical problems. Magnet thus demonstrates how the ostensible triumph of biometric technology continues to be reified and spun into stories of success by those who promote the technology; notwithstanding ongoing errors and a profound lack of evidence that biometrics are worth multibillion dollar investments.

Following widespread neoliberal reforms in the 1970s, the biometric industry benefited from a number of events: the privatization of social services and significant reductions in social spending, the War on Drugs, welfare backlash, a shift within prisons from rehabilitation to punishment, and the increased surveillance and criminalization of poverty and immigration. In this context, this book is a welcome addition to ongoing conversations about the privatization of power and how new kinds of subjectivity are shaped in relation to the mushrooming biometrics industry. The book provides an interdisciplinary contribution to critical studies on race, security, gender, and science.

Magnet partly attributes her methodological approach to Foucault, but there is no explicit discussion of Foucault even when certain parts of the book seem to demand it, such as in her references to the gaze and the act of reading truth off the body. Foucault maps how clinical thought produced the myth of a pure gaze that would also be pure in language. He argues that what becomes visible to the eye is predicated on its grounding in language. Knowledge and truth are premised on the notion that all that is visible is expressible, and that things are visible because they are expressible. There is a rich terrain here pertaining to how the body became a target of the gaze beyond the confines of the clinical space, but Magnet does not directly engage this genealogy. Similarly, Foucault's exploration of biopolitics, and how racism became the precondition for exercising the right to kill, warrants some discussion in Magnet's discussion of the "life and death" implications of biometrics. Nonetheless, she is successful at tracing the situational and embodied effects, as well as the historical national lineages, of biometrics.

In this vein, Magnet's exegesis comprised three case studies that demonstrate the widespread incorporation of biometric technology for the purposes of governing vulnerable people: the prison-industrial complex, welfare reform, and the Canada-U.S. border. Taken together these sites blend themes of resistance, identity, surveillance, and visibility, revealing the difficulty in universally applying biometric technology to complex social problems. …

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