ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


7 March 2016

The Never-Ending Search for the Radical Profile – and the Loss of the Person Behind It

Identification and registration practices are not that modern. Names have always been important to clerical and secular authorities. Names designate and authorize; they solidify a person’s relationship to one’s possessions and property, one’s debts and duties, one’s obligations and responsibilities. Names enable authorities to exert control, to designate good citizens, and to locate, exclude or neutralize citizens that might pose a threat.

A brief genealogy of identification and registration

In 1563 the Roman Catholic Church decided at the Council of Trent that priests had to begin keeping records of all of the births and marriages in their parishes. About 200 years later, secular authorities also began to collect data on the identities of citizens and store those centrally. Before the Napoleonic period, registering persons was basically limited to transfers of property, guarantees of solvency, businesses of guilds and companies, and ensuring the readiness of armed forces. With the bureaucratic expansion of the nation state, individual registration became much more important. In Europe, the Napoleonic era saw the start of the population’s central registration. As the Code Napoléon, the military draft, and centralized tax codes were implemented in most countries, the individual was placed in a much tighter relation to government, country, and nationality. Groups of drifters, vagabonds, gypsies, illegitimate children, and others on the margins of society were incorporated into the body of the modern state. Identity (name and address) became a permanent category, and registration was detached from one’s ecclesiastical or civil status, trade, possessions, or profession.

A French Passport from 1806

A French Passport from 1806

From then on the social contract’ would come with the citizen’s automatic registration. The individual was subjected to the state’s authority and its exclusive right to authorize physical force against its populace. Identification and registration placed government and citizens in a reciprocal relationship, serving both in different ways. On the one hand, the name of each citizen became an instrument in the exercise of the government’s authority and control. On the other, registration simultaneously worked to protect basic individual rights and ‘shield’ citizens from danger and anarchy.

From the person to the profile

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, governments came to know more and more about their citizens. With the industrial revolution and its economies of scale, identification and registration became increasingly important.

A group police officers is educated in the Bertillon method of measuring and registering suspects, circa 1910 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

These changing circumstances were echoed in a paradigm of scientism that still reverberates in the corridors of the powerful: one cannot know or control what one cannot measure. And as registration and identification processes became more objective, they also became more impersonal – and more oriented towards threats than to social benefits. A paradox emerged: while technologies for identifying and registering people were refined, the person was increasingly obscured from sight. The more that bodies were measured and individual coordinates collated, the more deconstructed and less palpable the person became. Professor of International Politics, Jenny Edkins has written about ‘politics that misses the person: a politics that objectifies and instrumentalizes.’ The digital revolution and the development of dna-technologies in the 1990s brought with them a revival and a re-evaluation of the practices of identification, registration, and recognition. September 11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ accelerated and intensified these trends. New methods and techniques of identification and registration proliferated.

Towards a biometric passport

Towards a biometric passport (source: Xanderniews)


And the people? They went along with it, some indifferent, others more than willing to subject themselves to the shelter that ‘security’ promised in an ‘orphaned society’ (Pim Fortuyn).

What is lost?

Despite all the advantages that profiles and advanced forensics have to offer, the profile and the actual person are never one and the same. Even the most fine-grained suspect profiles do not guarantee that the (right) person is caught. A dna or rna profile may be ever so unique, but ultimately it only speaks to the probability of the evidence. Keith Inman, an American professor and top forensic expert, warned in 2013 that ‘Bona fide data do not tell stories’. Data do not tell what someone really did, whether he or she really is radicalized, or how this happened. In short: data do not hand us the terrorist on a golden tray. A penchant for telling the story behind a name is ingrained in human beings. Yet this is exactly what a profile does not provide. Digital categories and algorithms ultimately cannot make us know or identify with a person, they cannot provide us with a personal story or a ‘why’. If they could we would be able to predict individual behavior in a manner of which the 2002 blockbuster Minority Report has already shown us the dangers.

Towards a new social contract of security

Today it is necessary to remember what these modern, centralized practices of identification and registration originally were all about: a constitutional framework in which citizens relinquished (voluntarily or not) a degree of their autonomy in exchange for more security and protection. People surrendered their names and personal information expecting that they would be identified, known, and, essentially, protected as individuals possessing autonomy and inalienable rights.  A contract is a two-sided, reciprocal agreement. Security policies and procedures should always seek to honor this contractual component. Thus security too needs to be monitored with all kinds of checks and balances. This raises the question whether ‘suspect names’ should have the opportunity to be heard. May citizens require insight in their data, or be granted access to the facts and reasons for their being blacklisted as a suspect terrorist? Security as a reciprocal social contract calls for well-defined channels through which the public can address security policies and start post hoc appeals processes concerning security procedures. Simply put: the biggest challenge for today’s practices of registration and identification is whether, given the rapt attention that is currently allotted to the growing flood of data, enough attention remains for the people and the names that lie behind the digital profiles, or whether this stream of data will be allowed to asphyxiate the person.