The use of fingerprint scanning and voice recognition software for identity validity and error reduction has spawned an ongoing national and international debate over whether these practices violate privacy.
But the use of such biometric data has also led to a new area of study – termed "somatechnics" – that critically considers the intersection between technology and the body.
To explore that intersection with a particular focus on borders, two University of Arizona research institutes are co-hosting an international symposium, "Virtual Divides: Biometrics, Bodies and Borders," on Nov. 9-10.
"We talk a lot about physical and political borders, but sometimes we don't talk about virtual borders," said Javier D. Durán, a UA director of Confluence and an associate professor of Spanish and border studies.
"But the idea is that borders are not just physical, they can transcend that," Durán added, noting that the symposium is open to the public.
Confluence partnered with UA's Institute for LGBT Studies to host a group of national and international scholars with the purpose of engaging them in conversations with UA students and researchers and also members of the public.
The events, which are free and open to the public and include lectures, brown bag discussions and a presentation by UA's BORDERS members, who are part of the National Center of Border Security and Immigration, are investigating ways to improve border security and safety.
For a full listing of events and other participants, visit Confluence's webpage.
Headline speakers are Joseph Pugliese, an associate professor of media, music, communication and cultural studies at Macquarie University in Australia, and Benjamin Muller, an assistant professor of political science at King's University College in Canada.
Pugliese is a member of the Somatechnics Research Network – formerly the Somatechnics Research Centre – of which he is deputy director and the UA's Institute for LGBT Studies director Susan Stryker is a research associate.
Meanwhile, Muller is collaborating with Durán on a project dealing with biometrics and surveillance culture in North America.
Founding members coined the term "somatechnics" in 2004 to explain the body-technology relationships and ways the body is manipulated via technology.
The term has since been employed by researchers studying a range of concepts, including body norms, biometric surveillance, medical imaging and surgery, body modification practices, transsexuality, war trauma and a range of other topics.
Stryker said somatechnics "has the potential to create critical knowledge about how the world works, how grand injustices transpire through mundane means, how small everyday actions can become sites of resistance to a power that tries to crush all differences from norms."
She added: "It's one thing to say, 'We are all subjected to racializing and gender-normalizing operations of power that increase life-chances for some bodies and decrease them for others and quite another to be able to point out exactly how this abstract process is materialized in the act of undergoing biometric surveillance at the border."
Pugliese and Muller have been invited to speak about different aspects of that theme.
Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. in the Rincon Room of the Student Union Memorial Center, Pugliese will present his formal lecture, "Biometrics' Embodied Technologies of the Border." He will discuss the use of biometric technologies, which he notes are used to govern points of entry into nations, institutions, organizations and databases, including other realms.
And Nov. 10 at 4 p.m., Muller will present his formal lecture, "'Unscripted Crossings': Borders, Biometrics, and the ‘Unknown Unknowns,'" in Room 150 of the Integrated Learning Center. Muller will discuss the reliance on biometrics and other surveillance and identification technologies in contemporary border security in order to "script" cross border movement.
Durán and Stryker both said the topics to be discussed during the symposium are both timely and widely important.
"Actual physical borders or security checkpoints increasingly have biometric components and depend on what can only be called a virtual body in order for the securitization process to function," Stryker said.
She gave the example of a full-body scanner at an airport, which relies on human screener to designate whether the person scanned is male or female.
"Based on the interpretation of your gender appearance, your physical body is measured against a virtual body, and if you somehow don't fit the profile of the assigned virtual body, you might have trouble passing through the security checkpoint or border," Stryker noted.
"For my part, I was very eager to work with Durán on this," Stryker said, adding that she and her collaborators are leading other initiatives associated with the Somatechnics Research Network. "I was looking for partners to help establish this as an interdisciplinary research area on campus, and Confluence seemed a perfect fit."