You Are What Your Fingerprint Says You Are

A U.S. soldier uses a handheld tool to scan the retinas of military-aged males in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
A U.S. soldier uses the Biometric Automated Toolset-Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (BAT-HIIDE) System to scan the retinas of military-aged males in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Photo by The U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s essay at The New York Review of Books asks us to reconsider the passport: while the West uses “passport” as shorthand for “opportunity and exploration,” the reality is very different, and passports are more frequently tools of control than liberation. And what happens as they’re increasingly digitized, and we move from passports to fingerprints and retinal scans for identification? Our movement is constrained by our very bodies.

Passports, in other words, were invented not to let us roam freely, but to keep us in place—and in check. They represent the borders and boundaries countries draw around themselves, and the lines they draw around people, too. This is the case in wartime and in peace. While most countries no longer ask for Casablanca’s famous exit visas, all their elimination has done is remove a cudgel from the bureaucratic gauntlet. As barriers on people’s leaving fall away, blocks on their entering shoot up. And what is the use in leaving if you have nowhere to go?

If the passport served as a symbol of belonging to a sovereign nation, and, for the more fortunate, a way to travel outside it, not long from now the lines will be drawn around our bodies, rather than our countries. As printed papers and analogue technologies are giving way to intricate scans that can identify us by the patterns on our irises, the shape of our faces, and even maps of our veins and arteries, we no longer are our papers; rather, our papers become us.

Read the essay