thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Beers for Fears! Fingerprinting pub guests in the UK

In the UK, the government is rolling out a nation-wide system for fingerprinting every guest in a pub. The system called "InTouch" by CreativeCode is already running as a pilot in the small town of Yeovil. The "biometric membership-system" is storing a hash of the fingerprint together with a photo of the guest and the name and other data. The landlord can add information on incidents and "anti-social behaviour", and will also get statistics on when a guest normally shows up etc. The system is also managing pub bans issued by PubWatch, a collaboration of landlords and police. The terminals are networked, so all connected pubs can exchange the data, and a ban can be issued not only for one location, but for all pubs in a neighborhood.

Why on earth would a pub owner want to have his guest fingerprinted, you ask? Well, as the Register reports,

some licensees were not happy to have their punters fingerprinted.
The district council has been using sticks and carrots to change this:

Not only does the council let them open later if they join the scheme, but the system costs them only £1.50 a day to run. (...) New licences stipulate that a landlord who doesn't install fingerprint security and fails to show a "considerable" reduction in alcohol-related violence, will be put on report by the police and have their licences revoked.

The UK Home Office paid the expenses for the system (£6,000) through its "Safer, Stronger Communities" funding, and has also decided to fund similar systems in Coventry, Hull and Sheffield.

The UK has become a laboratory for new technologies of control and discipline in recent years. The city of Peterborough has established a web-based "most wanted" list of terrorists litter dropping evil-doers, and the Blair government is running a major campaign against "anti-social behaviour". This all goes far beyond the "war on terror" or usual privacy-invasive state activities. It aims at the grey area between legal and illegal, and the pub ban obviously is not following established criminal procedures like getting a court decision before any punishment.

Social scientists have long diagnosed the end of the "neutralized state" (Carl Schmitt). I wrote about this eight years ago, and already back then quoted politicians from the Green Party in Germany who asked for more police actions against activities that are not "socially acceptable". This role for the state as the guardian of public behaviour - morality, that is - is relatively new and not envisioned in liberal political theory. Social norms had traditionally been stabilized in direct interactions among the population or in moral institutions like the churches, without the state interfering. Places like pubs by the way are an important locus of this kind of social integration of communities. It seems that under conditions of globalized and sharpened capitalism, the social fabric is being torn apart, which is also indicated by a growing socio-economic gap between the upper and the lower social classes (there is a wild public debate in Germany about this at the moment). Instead of dealing with the difficult global sources of these problems, the nation-state within its territorial limits seems to be focusing on the symptoms instead.

The important issue is then: Who has the power to define "social" and "normal" behaviour? How is this democratically controlled? How do we ensure this does not end in a culture of repressive "normality", of intolerance? The New York City policing model under mayor Giuliani also was an early prototype of this trend, and it is no coincidence that it was called "zero tolerance".

Via Rabenhorst


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