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History offers a cautionary tale for biometric covid tracking systems

Biometrics have great appeal to those concerned with public health — but they can also be used for far darker purposes

A worker scans a woman's eyes for biometric data for a passport in Kabul on June 30, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Places around the world are using biometric technologies for coronavirus contact tracing and surveillance. For example, a municipality in South Korea is expected to roll out a program that uses facial recognition to track infected people. Other countries plan to implement, or have already implemented, similar systems, and some U.S. states are moving in that direction. Companies are developing facial recognition systems equipped with body temperature sensing capabilities, and Seychelles International Airport just implemented such a system for traveler health screening.

Legal experts and advocacy groups have said these systems raise concerns about privacy, data collection without consent, expanding government surveillance and discrimination against marginalized groups. Studies show that facial recognition technologies are more likely to misidentify women, the elderly and Black, Asian and Indigenous people. Biometric systems used for contact tracing could also expand beyond their original purposes. After all, biometric coronavirus tracking systems often rely on preexisting infrastructures, like closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, originally created for other reasons.

And history indicates that these fears are well-founded. While the technology may be new, using biometrics to respond to a public health crisis is not unique to our moment. Biometrics have been part of social policies for the last 150 years, including public health research and intervention. But this history shows how the same biometric data collected for public health purposes could be used for other, less benevolent aims, and offers a cautionary tale that should inform debates about deploying biometric systems to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

Biometrics, techniques of measuring parts of the body like fingerprints and faces, emerged as a quantitative method for eugenics research in anthropology and statistics during the second half of the 19th century. Coined by the anthropologist Francis Galton in 1883, eugenics was the “‘science’ of improving human stock by giving ‘the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.’” Galton and other British anthropologists and statisticians, as well as their European and North American counterparts, used anthropometrics, a biometric research field aimed at measuring human mental and physical characteristics, to develop empirical evidence for their eugenic projects and policies. This research also informed justifications for colonial and empire-building projects.

The assumptions being promulgated by biometric research projects intersected with the emerging field of criminology. Late 19th century police departments in France, Argentina and other countries developed anthropometric and fingerprint systems to verify the identities of criminals, building on the assumption that no two people shared the exact same body measurements. Similarly, British colonial governments used fingerprinting to identify colonial subjects, notably in India. Police departments in the United Kingdom and in British colonies also adopted fingerprint identification in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, British anthropologists used biometrics to study heredity and racially classify populations in the U.K. and its colonies. The Anthropology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science undertook significant work in this area and its members formed an Anthropometric Committee in 1902. These anthropologists planned to standardize anthropometric techniques and hoped to chart a survey of the physical characteristics of all U.K. inhabitants.

When a 1903 U.K. War Office memorandum estimated that the military rejected up to 60 percent of potential recruits because of unsatisfactory physical fitness, policymakers feared that the population’s health might indeed be declining, a phenomenon they called “physical deterioration.” This came amid a period of industrialization, urbanization and increasing Eastern European Jewish immigration to the U.K., as well as widespread anxieties about national decline. The War Office memorandum also coincided with increasing concerns about the future of the British Empire, as the Second Boer War (1899-1902) called its military strength into question.

The government formed an Inter-departmental Committee to determine whether deterioration was occurring and how it could be mitigated. The committee comprised eight men primarily from the education sector, though it also included a marine recruitment inspector and a General Register Office physician. One priority was to collect empirical data on the health of the people. They invited two anthropologists from the British Association, Daniel Cunningham, a professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, and John Gray, a government clerk and amateur anthropologist from Scotland, to explain how anthropometry could provide the government with such data.

Gray and Cunningham proposed a “National Anthropometric Survey” largely based on British Association anthropologists’ interests in measuring the population. The committee adopted the proposal into its final report in 1904, but it was never implemented.

The committee believed that the impoverished living and working conditions of the urban working class were probably causing physical deterioration in this sector of society. They thought the survey could identify these conditions and provide a basis for social reforms to remedy them.

Gray and Cunningham, and their anthropologist colleagues, however, had different interests than the government committee. They did not believe that physical deterioration was caused by social factors, or that it could be reversed by changes in the environment, with only a few exceptions.

Like other eugenicists, they primarily understood deterioration as “degeneration,” a eugenic term that referred to the physical and mental — as well as irreversible and heritable — decline of particular social classes and races. They believed degeneration was occurring in the U.K., and blamed it on the growing Jewish immigrant community. They also claimed that the emigration of “young,” “strong” and “enterprising” people from Ireland caused degeneracy among those who remained there. They hoped to use the survey to collect scientific evidence of allegedly “degenerate” populations and form a basis for anti-immigration policies.

Gray and Cunningham also saw it as an opportunity to accomplish their own research goals for racial classification. Their proposal included body measurements like height, weight, pelvic, shoulder and rib cage measurements; these seemed to align with the government’s interest in measuring the population’s physical health.

But they also included hair and eye color, which they planned to use to classify race in conjunction with the other physical measurements. The anthropologists also argued with the Inter-departmental Committee about the scope of the survey; they wanted the whole population measured so that they could conduct their research at a national scale, whereas the committee thought surveying youths alone would best help them understand how to improve the population’s overall health.

The government was ultimately skeptical about undertaking such an expensive program. They worried the survey would disproportionately target the working class, while collecting body measurements ran counter to values of privacy and personal sovereignty at that time. Critical lawmakers thought the undertaking seemed unfeasible and argued that the state could take other actions to address overcrowding, food insecurity and other conditions of urban poverty. Lawmakers and medical experts were aware of the survey’s eugenic applications, and some worried that its intended focus on the social causes of “deterioration” blurred into preoccupations with studying “degeneration.”

Much like biometric systems today, the survey generated concerns about discrimination, state collection of citizens’ data and the possibility that it could be used for purposes other than advancing public health. While the cutting-edge science of biometrics in 1904 appealed to certain lawmakers and experts as a public health policy solution, these concerns ultimately prevented the survey from gaining widespread support.

The proposed 1904 survey is not directly related to any systems that exist today, and its aims certainly differ from current biometric coronavirus infection tracking systems. But all biometric infrastructures rely on similar methods of measuring the body to make inferences about identity, and this example from history reminds us that the same biometric data used for public health could also be used for other purposes now or in the future.

Today, legal experts and civil liberties advocates have already identified other possible uses, such as mass surveillance beyond public health aims and discriminatory surveillance targeted at marginalized groups. The entwined histories of biometrics and eugenics should also give us pause.