Identifying Citizens

Lyon, David
Polity Press, Cambridge
9780745641560 (pb)

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Cover of book Classic identification (ID) insignia typically came in some intricate form of ostentatious badges or paper booklets. They were mainly used for the single aim of negative discrimination which resulted in the exclusion or repression of particular population groups and even in mass murder or genocide. The slave tags of the American Old South and the Jewish pass laws of Nazi Germany are only two of the many historical examples. Contemporary types of ID are less striking and take on the format of a small plastic card, normally with some kind of micro data chip. They are made use of at various public occasions and are generally aimed at the inclusion of different people for reasons of social welfare or political participation.

Obviously, the matter is not so easy. Exactly as earlier ID initiatives, and national schemes in particular, contributed to the political and social entitlement of population groups, more recent arrangements, too, are functioning rather exclusionary through their enduring separation between holders/non-holders and citizens/non-citizens, respectively. The crucial question that should be raised in this regard is whether new ID systems are able to escape the negative discrimination capacities inherent to them. Apparently, this is not the case. Quite the contrary, it seems as if current ID schemes are strengthening the surveillance and social sorting aspects of their respective systems in ways inimical to democracy and the legitimacy of governance.

The rationales for this assertion are given in the book Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance. Its author, David Lyon, is an idealistic type of person who combines practical questions with abstract reasoning, and breaks down complicated issues without losing argumentative sharpness. Following Zygmunt Bauman, he places care-taking for others at the existential core of the human condition and argues that this is also the key criteria against which policies, such as related to ID systems, must be measured. Being a Sociology Professor of Scottish ancestry at Queen's University, Ontario, he comments on both his mixed senses of belonging as well as the various resident statuses that have been ascribed to him during his long-term career in Canada—from landed immigrant to citizen. While these private experiences have certainly triggered his research interest in ID systems, it is this personal intimacy evident throughout the writing which carries his human-based argument and makes the book a captivating read—suitable not only for academic specialists, but also for a more general public.

In six main chapters, Lyon traces the histories of IDs as sorting systems, before portraying their basic functioning according to the set-up of discriminatory categories and their increased capacities, but also error ratios, because of computerisation. After identifying profit-oriented technology corporations as an additional force behind the respective schemes to security-concerned governments, he demonstrates how current quests for international ID standards and system harmonisation, as well as digital and biometric data storage and handling, are enhancing the potential of negative discrimination against already stigmatised population groups due to the ways in which decision-making is distanced from those whose lives are scrutinised. He considers these developments as a mechanic feedback-loop and concludes that new ID systems would ultimately take on authoritarian and dehumanising tendencies.

Lyon's overall argumentation is plausible and convincing. However, a shortcoming of his work lies with the question of the development of a common consciousness about the issues related to new ID systems and concrete proposals for the implementation of more just and human initiatives. While his general approach is undeniably balanced, one cannot entirely escape the impression that each attempt to address the weaknesses of current ID initiatives becomes caught in the cybernetic vicious circle. Yet, in the end he shows that there is room for exit strategies and that informed opposition has influenced recent ID schemes. Still, his prospects for organised action and alternative designs remain somewhat limited. What becomes clear throughout the book is that evaluations of new ID systems cannot be reduced to mere questions of production costs, technological reliability or customer convenience. They must rather be conceived as issues of humanness and responsibility for others. The above shortcomings are thus relatively easy to address. We have to face slightly different questions, such as: Are we willing to afford the personnel costs for individual identification procedures? Is a strict minute-contingent on application processing an adequate means for decision-making? Who rejects these questions to be raised in light of new ID technologies, places themselves close to slaveholders and fascists; who allows them to be asked, acknowledges that human dignity dictates us to listen to the voices and stories of the persons behind ID cards in a world in which states and otherness continue to prove a considerable persistence in structuring our lives, for empowerment and humiliation. That he urges us to shift the foci of discussion is the major contribution of Lyon's work.

Thorsten Nieberg
University of Southern Queensland, Australia