Category Archives: biopolitics

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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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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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.

Response to the “Face of Litter”

Yes, this looks very familiar…

No I had nothing to do with it, I was not consulted or cited, and I’m not surprised.

It isn’t surprising that an ad agency copied an artist’s work with no remuneration or citation.

And it isn’t surprising that an ad agency press release was recycled from one media outlet to the next as “news” without research or problematization of the obvious issues here around surveillance, genetic privacy, and public shaming as a technique of social control.

Finally, it isn’t surprising that DNA might be used to monitor, survey, and publicly shame individuals deemed deviant.

But what is the “face of litter” campaign really? DNA phenotyping isn’t cheap, and it’s telling to contemplate why a Parabon Nanolabs, a small biotech startup, would donate this expensive technology to an ad agency for a pro bono ecological project. It’s called PR.

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Newborn DNA Storage Raises Serious Privacy Concerns

Before they are even a week old, ninety-eight percent of the 4.3 million babies born annually in the United States have a small sample of blood taken from their heels. These newborn bloodspots (NBS) are then screened for a variety of inherited conditions and are often later stored in state-operated databases. Newborn screening itself is an important public health program and some have described these residual sample “biobanks” in equally positive terms. Although there are concrete benefits of newborn testing, there are also troubling consent and privacy issues raised by the screening, storage and use of the samples.

 

Newborn screening began in the United States as a series of state level pilot programs in the 1960s to test for PKU, a rare genetic condition that is easily treatable if caught early. The success of these early programs led to rapid adoption of newborn screening among all states in the US and the number of conditions screened for has grown progressively since with additional funding at the Federal level. Because of the singular history of newborn screening, it remains the only widespread health testing in the US conducted not by an individual’s doctor, hospital, or health care provider but by individual state departments of public health. This singular history can also account for a wide disparity in state law and policy with regards to parental consent, sample storage and use.

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Biopolitics – An interview with Timothy Campbell

Biopolitics: A Reader Edited by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze

Timothy Campbell is a Professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University and together with Adam Sitze, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social thought at the Amherst College he recently edited a new collection of essays on the topic of biopolitics. Campbell translated Roberto Esposito’s Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minnesota, 2008) and Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (Stanford, 2009). He is the author of Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minnesota, 2006), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2007 Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Technics and and Improper Life: Biopolitics and Technology from Heidegger to Agamben (Minnesota, 2011). He also edits the series “Commonalities” for Fordham University Press and is currently completing his study of cinema and biopower titled Grace Notes:  Cinema and the Generous Form of Life.

Biopolitics: A Reader published in 2013 collects pivotal texts defining the concept of biopolitics. Opening with Michel Foucault’s coining of the term in his 1976 essay “Right of Death and Power over Life” we follow biopolitics through the edited collection as it is anticipated by Hannah Arendt and later altered, critiqued, deconstructed, and refined by major political and social theorists who explicitly engaged with Foucault’s ideas.

This blog post is abridged. A PDF of the entire interview is available here.

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