Eugenics and Biosurveillance in the Golden State

In 1979, the California Eugenics Law was repealed, but it would take 24 years for the state to acknowledge this atrocious injustice aimed at poor, disabled, and predominantly women of color throughout the state. According to an interview with Professor Alex Stern for NPR, the “state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have ‘mental disease,’ which may have been inherited.” To clarify, surgery meant sterilization. The reasoning for such legislation is deeply rooted in the work and research by eugenicist Francis Galton who believed certain genetic dispositions were superior or inferior. Although eugenics was debunked as a pseudoscience, it bred white supremacism, institutionalized racism, and misogyny with ripple effects throughout western history.

From 1909 to 1979 the California eugenics law was in effect and during that time, approximately 800 tubal ligation procedures, according to statistical research, were performed on women and men without their consent. According to Stern, despite the law being dissolved in the late 1970s, 146 female inmates were subjected to forced sterilization between 2006 and 2010. The law targeted black and brown women, predominantly Latina. While there have been stories and articles covering the practice of eugenics and disproving it as a science, it continues to contribute to contemporary practices of genetic surveillance and the constant battle to legislate women’s’ bodies. According to Stern, many of the women sterilized in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly women with Latin American last names, poor, and immigrants with very little to no support to help navigate the American healthcare system. bell hooks aptly described America as a country built on a structure of ‘white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.’ I argue this structure, which continues to plague the United States today, extends to and encompasses our medico-legal system as well.

DNA collection and banking have been a deeply contested area of biosurveillance for years. Stern’s research on the California Eugenics Law begs the question: how many more states have buried histories of forced sterilization deep in their records? The prevalence of biometric data collection as a way of policing poor, disabled, and marginalized bodies has a direct correlation to eugenics practices. Aside from historical data, artists working in the realms of genetic determinism offer a unique methodology and approaches to exploring and critiquing science as a vehicle for systemic racism and sexism.

This particular research speaks to the way heteronormativity and white supremacy have gone hand in hand. The history of forced sterilization on women of color in California made it extremely difficult for communities of color to obtain immediate health care reform and reparations. While a registry has been created to capture what Stern, as estimated to be around 800 potential survivors of these procedures, the question that comes to mind, are potential cases around the US that may have similar suppressed or obscured records.

While science is often believed to be objective, much like data and statistics, it can be grossly manipulated to serve specific ideologies. Stepping away from historical frameworks, I have been deeply influenced by the cyberfeminist collective, subRosa. In the SubRosa anthology, Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices, Emily de Araujo and Lucia Somner created “A Summary History of Eugenic Theories and Practices in the United States,” which outlines the major events in the advancement of eugenics and racial profiling.

How can we ensure updated information is then communicated to the masses in such a way that enables the reader to see exactly how they fit into this larger rubric of theorization? How do we revise and graft onto these methods of resistance that the SubRosa collective have created for the community? Methods may include intervention at the clinical research level or occupying particular scientific and institutionalized spaces to promote inclusion of underrepresented and underserved bodies. What are the ways we can seize (medical and data) systems of oppression and turn genetic surveillance into genetic sousveillance? In Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s performance piece, DNA Spoofing, we see various fictitious methods preventing surveillance of the body. What might it mean for subjects to be given the opportunity to survey the surveyor and reflect back practices to a physician?  In which ways can we set up new ethical practices with lasting effects?

Bibliography:

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices by the SubRosa Collective

Research and Digital Resources, Alexdra Minna Stern, PhD

On a Eugenics Registry: A Record of California’s Thousands of Sterilization, NPR

A Summary History of Eugenics Theories and Practices in the United States compiled by Emily de Araujo and Lucia Sommer of the SubRosa Collective

Informatic Opacity

This essay was originally published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA

On June 7, 2013, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program was made public in news media with the aid of whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and filmmaker Laura Portrais. Their reports revealed a suite of software designed for global, invasive data searches and analysis, including PRISM, a data-mining application used to collect billions of metadata records from various telecommunications and social media companies, and Boundless Informant, a visualization tool developed to track and analyze collected data; a third was announced on July 31, 2013, as XKeyscore, a search system that mines extensive online databases containing browsing histories and emails. Just as philosopher Michel Foucault once described the panopticon as the exemplary diagram of surveillance in the modern age, this assemblage of software, whose reach is yet to be fully known, will arguably become our contemporary replacement.

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Good Regulators: The Weakness of 1Password and Its Progeny

There’s a math theorem that I rather like because I think it appeals to so many situations. I feel this way about that quote from Frankenstein, “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper… blahblah;” I used that repeatedly in school essays, on entrance exams, in acceptance speeches. Some things make little sense to you in-situ but come to mean much more when you apply them to other scenarios. In the Good Regulator Theorem, good regulators are a model of systems that they regulate, and if the model is not a performant echo, then the system is weak, unregulated, and welcome to compromise. In some ways, I feel passwords are “good regulators,” things that model what they manage, because they protect memory (stores of information that you might like to keep private), and in a meta-way, they rely on your memory to ensure their utility.

We often write weak passwords because we have weak memories. So then we write frameworks around them that weaken their ability to perform, their ability to echo the system they model, and thus we introduce our human weakness into an already crippled model of protection. We “salt” and “hash” our passwords but we are still distant from a happy breakfast, to a happy progeny, a product of our genius and not simply an echo of our faults. So what can be done about passwords? What can be done about the memory they protect? How does the weakness of passwords, and of “good regulation,” affection the bio-politics of our contemporary world?

Password Strength XKCD

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Unfit Bits

Free your fitness data from yourself

Unfit Bits outlines everyday techniques for generating the fitness datasets of your choice, enabling you to qualify for insurance discounts without the lifestyle to match.

Why Unfit Bits?

It is increasingly assumed that fitness trackers provide an objective view of the activities of their wearer. The assumption is that a person’s acceleration data as interpreted by some fancy algorithms, gives a robust insight into the fitness, health and behavior of their body, and cuts through the blurry ambiguities of memory and perception. During the last year, data from a Fitbit tracker has been used as evidence in court both in a case about the impact of a workplace injury on a worker’s health and more recently as evidence of a rape. How these early examples play out, will reveal how tight the relationship between activity data and behavior of the wearer is assumed to be.

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Is Beating a DNA Test Possible?

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Humans contain about 25,0000 protein coding genes and much more non-protein coding DNA, all of which uniquely identifies us. Because of this, DNA tests have become the standard is criminal forensics for identification of individuals at the scene of a crime. When done properly these tests can identify individuals with a theoretical probability of 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000(1018). These statistics come from using the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS and focuses on identity through only 13 genes (alleles). Well, it is not actually 13 genes, it is only small parts of 13 genes. To me this seems like a very breakable and hackable system so let’s talk think about that for a minute or seven.

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Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead

Published 7/6/15 by The New Inquiry

The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting,” and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP has already been used to create a new kind of police sketch.

While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted from DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites. We tend to look at technical systems as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and look at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.

FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space,” a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African.”

The act of creating computational averages and looking for correlated features in large datasets has an air of authenticity and scientific validity, but what this actually does is create a system of types — you might call them stereotypes.

Continue Reading: Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead at The New Inquiry.

The Future of Microbiome Forensics

bacteriaEverywhere we go we leave microscopic traces of ourselves, and we collect microscopic traces of others. Microscopic DNA left at the scene of a crime is commonly used to identify criminals and substantiate evidence against them. What about other microscopic traces humans leave behind or even collect, can we be identified or tracked based solely on the bacteria that inhabit our body?

Yes.

Everyone’s skin is covered in bacteria, it is all over you and the surfaces you interact with. Scientists call each community of bacteria a microbiome. Until the past few years this knowledge was little more than a curiosity as Scientists attempted to understand if this population of bacteria on our bodies affected us in any way. Then some studies came around which suggested that bacteria influence things like mammalian circadian clocks and appetites. Some others attempted to quantify the types and amounts of bacteria on our skin, inside our body, and in our environments. From all of this, Scientists began to see that both the microbiome of our environments and our bodies have unique qualities.

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Future Map Reloaded

Brian Holmes is a Chicago-based art critic, activist and translator known for his writing on the intersections of artistic and political practice. In light of the recent explosion of surveillance discourse in the media, we invited Brian Holmes to revisit an essay he wrote in 2007 on the intersection of cybernetics, surveillance and neoliberal capitalism, to provide a theoretical framework for discussion.

FUTURE MAP RELOADED
By Brian Holmes

title-future-map

Say “surveillance” and people think “Foucault.” Dull bureaucratic corridors; cold cells; disciplined bodies; an invasive gaze. State power, in short. The bloated US prison system and the staggering growth of mass electronic surveillance since 9/11 gives us every reason to think this way. Yet there is another, even more pervasive form of mass surveillance. Friendly and seductive, not cold and bureaucratic; multiple and proliferating, not centrally controlled; corporate and consumer-oriented, not based on state power. And there is also another Foucault.

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