Fingerprint Foreboding

I was jolted to read last week that public schools in Taunton are planning to use a fingerprint scan as a way to enable students to pay for lunch. At the cash register, the student will simply tap a finger on an electronic reader, and a pre-stored mathematical formula derived from a fingerprint will bring up the student's account.Some parents, as well as lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, raised objections; in some other states, fingerprints-for-lunch have already been banned. The explicit concern is articulated in terms of worries about identity theft, but a more visceral reaction to fingerprints may account for the skepticism.

In my case, that reaction is personal. As a college student nearly half a century ago, I spent summers working for the FBI in Washington. I went each day to what was called the " Ident Building," the mammoth headquarters of the Identification Division, which occupied most of a block in an anonymous corner of Southwest D.C. near the rail yards. In the building's vast open rooms were thousands of file cabinets holding millions of cards, each with ink smudges and classification codes. A swarm of file clerks (of whom, for a time, I was one) buzzed around the drawers like bees around a network of hives.

Biometrics is the science of identification by means of bodily characteristics. In the 19th century, calipers were applied to skulls and other body parts, but such measurements were imprecise and cumbersome. With the 20th century came the science of analyzing the barely perceptible ridges, loops, and spirals of the skin on fingers. Because those patterns in the flesh are unique to each individual, and permanent, they proved to be the perfect aid to the law enforcement project of identifying persons who do not want to be identified.

That was the point of fingerprints, of course. The entire system of collection and classification aimed at criminal prosecution.

Soldiers and sailors were fingerprinted, and so were certain categories of government employees. When I was hired as an FBI summer clerk, I was fingerprinted. Such records could be used to identify accident victims or war dead.

The FBI distinguished between "civil files" and criminal files, but those of us working at "Ident" knew that the enterprise was centrally about the government's campaign to catch bad people and put them away. That is why I remember the day that my own fingers were pressed onto the inkpad and card as one of foreboding.

With my fingerprints in the bureau file, the absolute presumption of innocence to which I was entitled as an American was mitigated. J. Edgar Hoover had a tag on me, and even though I admired him then, I felt the chill of his cold breath on my neck. The ink stain was hard to get off my fingers.

In later years, it became clear, even to those of us who began by admiring him, that J. Edgar Hoover was in pursuit not just of criminals, but of a whole range of people whom he disliked -- "security risks," "subversives," "agitators," "deviants," "black nationalists," "peaceniks." When, a decade after my employment at the FBI, I was arrested at a peace demonstration in Washington, the ritual of being fingerprinted intimidated me more than others.

I knew all about the bureau by then, but the fright was that the bureau knew all about me. My fingerprints were a window into who I was, and my accusers could see into me whether I wanted them to or not.

Imagine if, in addition to fingerprints, J. Edgar Hoover had access to the high-tech biometrics of the iris scan; in addition to wiretaps, the eavesdropping technologies that snatch conversation out of the air; in addition to agent surveillance, the electronic trails of credit cards, cameras on subways, satellite imaging, and EZPasses that register auto traffic through every toll booth.

Privacy, the dictionary says, is the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. But that definition seems anachronistic, with ubiquitous intrusion a new fact of life. For security, or mere efficiency, we Americans are sanctioning the end of our right to deny sanction to such invasion. Now, of course, it is not just law enforcers in the mode of J. Edgar Hoover who have the capacity to intrude, but also MasterCard, the credit bureaus, the Google user, the phone company, the e-mail provider, the airport screener -- and the lunch room cashier in the local school. And why shouldn't parents be uneasy?

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