Disertation: From Documents to Data: The Emergence of National Biometric Identification Systems in the 20th and 21st Centuries
Advisor: Jennifer Light
Degree Awarded: 2023
Current Affiliation: MIT
Michelle Spektor, PhD ’23
BS, Biology and Society, Cornell University
MS, Science, Technology and Society, Bar-Ilan University (Israel)
Biometric systems are ubiquitous and, for the most part, extremely useful. They are considered an innovative means of ensuring security, whether they are deployed to unlock a cell phone or to gain entry to a building or access to sensitive information. Biometrics prove a person’s identity through a number of physical factors, including fingerprints, facial recognition, or other body measurements. However, as HASTS graduate Michelle Spektor’s research shows, biometrics are neither novel nor are they always used for the greater good.
“Biometrics emerged during the second half of the 19th century as a quantitative method for eugenics research,” she says, referencing a particularly heinous period in history when the poor, the sick, the elderly, and racial and religious groups were targeted as undesirables. Clearly, employing biometrics for such a purpose is not as benign as keeping someone out of one’s apps or facility—rather, it shows how this technology has been employed to marginalize people and keep them out of mainstream society.
“Specifically,” says Michelle, “my research focuses on state use of biometric identification systems as tools for identifying their own citizens. In the service of national security programs, biometrics could have benefits, but in the wrong hands or for the wrong reasons, it could lead to a serious breach of privacy or to discrimination or even deportation.” Michelle’s interest in this matter is more than mere curiosity; her father emigrated to the U.S. from Soviet Ukraine and his stories of government surveillance of its citizens stoked her desire to study this phenomenon. Her dissertation research, which was recognized with the Society for the History of Technology’s Kranzberg Award, explores this question by tracing the shared history of British and Israeli biometric systems since 1904.
One of the central questions of her work is why states use biometrics to identify their citizens. The answers typically involve broader issues related to immigration, citizenship, class, and race. “It’s not just about collecting data on citizens,” says Michelle. “It’s about who belongs in the nation and who doesn’t. We need to remind people how ubiquitous this technology is—that it started well before the digital and information ages—and ask how it changes the relationship between states and citizens.”
Michelle is currently a lecturer in Science, Technology, and Society at Tufts University, where she teaches courses on surveillance, the state, and the life sciences within a global and historical context. In addition, she was a Fulbright fellow at Bar-Ilan University and a 2020-2021 pre-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Human-Centered AI and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.