Biometrics and Border Control Policing Research Paper

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This research paper examines the role of biometric technologies and databases in border policing. It commences with a definition of biometric technology and then proceeds to discuss the political economy of the biometric industry since the attacks of 9/11. Drawing upon a range of critical scholarship, a number of theories are discussed which interrogate the changing nature of citizenship and identity in relation to biometric databases. The paper also discusses some of the critiques raised by civil libertarians in relation to the assemblage of large-scale and frequently transnational databases. The discussion concludes by considering the constitutive role of biometric technologies in broader processes of the securitization of mobility.

Key Issues/Controversies

Over the past decade borders and border enforcement have become the subject of intense scholarly interest within criminology, and more generally within the social sciences. In 1996 Saskia Sassen presciently identified border crossing as a “strategic site of inquiry about the limits of the new order” (xvi) under conditions of globalization. The drive – most readily apparent in states of the global north – to secure seamless circuits of capital, trade, and skilled migration, while fortifying national boundaries against perceived threats of organized crime, terrorism, and illegal migration, has resulted in considerable political, technical, and financial investment in border control (Aas 2011). The “informatization” of the border has been a crucial component of such developments – with a proliferation of databases, records, and files on citizens, migrants, business visitors, asylum seekers, and cross-border workers. Biometric identifiers are key elements of these proliferating databases which seek to control flows, identify risks, and banish threats (van der Ploeg 2006). This research paper will detail key areas in the study of biometrics and border policing. While there is a technical literature in this field, primarily concerned with implementation (e.g., Woodward et al. 2003), this research paper will focus on key issues and controversies that arise from critical scholarship. It will commence with a definition of biometrics, and then discuss the political economy of biometrics in relation to the security industry. The paper will then proceed to position the study of biometrics and border policing within wider debates about the changing nature of borders and mobility under conditions of globalization.

At the outset it is important to provide a brief explanation of what is under discussion in the scholarship surrounding “biometrics.” In general, biometric technology involves the collection of digital representations of physiological features unique to an individual, such as fingerprints, pattern of the iris, the retina, or voice patterns. Digital representations are then normally transformed into binary code by means of an algorithm to construct a template. These templates are accumulated in a centralized database that is accessed when, on subsequent occasions, the finger, hand, face, eye, or voice is presented to the system. If a matching template is found, the person is acknowledged and counts as known to the system. In some instances the representation may be stored on a chipcard rather than a template. The user then has to present the chipcard and requested body part to prove they are the legitimate user of the card (van der Ploeg 1999, p. 37).

Biometric technology uses two main methods for identity checks: verification and identification. Verification is essentially confirming people are who they say they are, and is achieved through one-to-one matching. One-to-one matching is used, for example, in the identification of people traveling on false passports, but might also be used to facilitate more rapid immigration procedures for those possessing the designated biometric documents. Biometric technologies are also increasingly utilized in identification (that is determining who the person is, or in some instances is not) through one-to-many matching. The clearest example of one-to-many matching is evident in the use of facial recognition technology matched to CCTV cameras. Air passengers can have their faces scanned and checked against a database of “terrorists” or other “wanted” people (Lyon 2003).

In the wake of September 11, 2001 (hereafter9/11), and the subsequent “war on terror” hi-tech solutions to problems of security — such as facial recognition technology, iris and retina scans, and smart identity cards — have proven incredibly persuasive and ascendant (Van der Ploeg 2003; Zuriek and Hindle 2004). The proliferation of biometric technologies has been most evident at the borders between nation states, where the use of biometric passports matched with surveillance tools such as face and iris recognition technologies is being rapidly deployed at airports and other land and sea border posts. It is important to note that the security industry was already expanding prior to the attacks of 9/11. As Garland (2001) noted, late modern societies had witnessed an expansion of the commercial security sector that frequently fueled public anxieties in relation to crime control while claiming to allay them. Nevertheless, the already expansionist trajectory of the security sector received a massive boost from the climate of heightened anxiety following 9/11, and later compounded by the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground and the Madrid bombings. Mike Davis predicted in 2001 that “the ‘Fear Economy,’ as the business press has labelled the complex of military and security firms rushing to exploit the national nervous breakdown, will grow fat amidst the general famine” (p. 45). Later commentators have suggested Davis’ prediction materialized. Webb (2007) has argued for the emergence of the “corporate-security complex” post 9/11, while Hayes (2010) outlines the emergence of a “security-industrial complex.”

Prior to 9/11 biometrics was a fringe element of the security industry widely regarded as being of limited application and subject to significant errors. However, post-9/11 the biometric industry has grown considerably in size (Zuriek and Hindle 2004; Wilson 2006; Webb 2007). Moreover, particularly in the US, government expenditure on security technologies accelerated in the wake of the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror.” In 2003 the Bush Administration earmarked $38 billion in new spending for homeland security, while security budgets in Europe and Australia also ballooned (Zuriek and Hindle 2004). In this climate the biometrics industry has been well organized to claim market share and gain “brand recognition” for biometrics as a security technology. Security technology companies were aggressively marketing their wares to airport officials within days of the 9/11 attacks (ACLU 2004, p. 27). Within a fortnight of 9/11 the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA), an advocacy organization representing major biometric companies in the US, issued a press release highlighting the role of biometrics in the fight against terrorism. Visionics – a US manufacturer of facial recognition technology – suggested in a white paper entitled Protecting Civilization from the Faces of Terror that airport security, in the US the responsibility of the Federal Government, “demands substantial financial resources” to develop “technology that can be implemented to immediately spot terrorists and prevent their actions.” Boarding a plane, the white paper suggested, should no longer be considered “a right granted to all, but as a privilege accorded to those who can be cleared of as having no terrorist or dangerous affiliations” (cited in Zuriek and Hindle, p. 122). The political economy of biometric technology is constituted of complex networks of research laboratories, venture capitalists, and transnational corporations both stimulating and responding to expanding security markets that are both public and private (Walters 2010).

Biometric technologies have been heavily promoted as infallible despite their actual efficacy remaining highly questionable. At Palm Beach International Airport in the US, a trial of facial recognition technology failed to recognize participating airport employees 53 % of the time (Wilson 2006). Results of independent evaluations of facial recognition technology in other locations suggest similarly dismal results (Clarke 2003). Accuracy rates for facial recognition and finger print scanning remain problematic, and a Japanese researcher was able to fool a system by using a gelatin-based fake finger (Lyon 2003, p. 71; Zuriek and Hindle 2004, p. 120). Even some within the security industry are uneasy about the rapid pace with which untested and poorly researched biometric technologies are being deployed (Wilson 2006, 2007). Nevertheless the appeal of biometric technologies may reside in their symbolic resonance rather than in any technical efficacy, a point to which this research paper will later return.

Automated systems, it might be suggested, reduce questions of discretion and discrimination to the abstracted question of whether one is granted or denied access. Technological discourse frequently constructs biometrics as a neutral security tool enacting abstracted processes of authentication and verification. As Muller notes “why biometrics is so successful in concealing its exclusionary and discriminatory character is the way in which it tries to hide the question of identity behind the preoccupation with authenticity” (2004, p. 286). Nevertheless, while biometric technology may appear to do little more than enact automated functions of verification and authentication, critical scholars have argued that it heralds new forms of control and exclusion. Gilles Deleuze (1992), for example, has argued that contemporary societies are “societies of control” where surveillance is detached from discipline and is primarily concerned with the distribution of entitlements on the basis of identity. Nikolas Rose (1999) has argued that contemporary shifts represent the “securitization of identity” whereby the exercise of freedom requires proof of legitimate identity.

The concepts of “societies of control” and the “securitization of identity” suggest that biometric technologies are far from neutral but are rather deeply imbricated within new modalities of power. Digital biometric identifiers become vital tokens of contemporary citizenship, and an integral aspect of what Jones (2001) terms “digital rule.” “Digital rule” refers to the capacity of control agents to assign access and authorization. Punishment increasingly takes the form of “withdrawal of access privileges.” This is a form of remote rule based upon databases and codes. The capability of remotely granting or denying access through biometric technologies linked to databases thus contains the capacity to deepen and widen social discrimination. Biometric technologies are hastening processes of what Lyon (2003) has termed “social sorting” where populations are digitally categorized as worthy and unworthy, included and excluded.

Similarly, scholars such as Graham and Wood (2003) have argued that these technological systems are far from neutral and abstracted, but are rather actively formed through social practices and decisions. As they note of digital surveillance systems, while they may be characterized by flexibility and ambivalence, and contingent upon judgments of social and economic worth built into their design, they are “likely to be strongly biased by the political, economic and social conditions that shape the principles embedded in their design and implementation” (2003, p. 229). Pugliese (2010) also argues that the categorizations of biometric systems are inherently racialized. Biometric systems, Pugliese suggests, are “calibrated to white,” whereby Whiteness is configured as the universal gauge determining the technical limits for image capture. Categories of racialized exclusion are therefore embedded within the technological infrastructure. Several scholars have examined biometrics through the prism of Foucaldian notions of biopower (Pugliese 2010). Alternatively, Didier Bigo (2006), drawing upon Agamben’s notion of the “ban” has suggested the concept of the “banopticon.” David Lyon neatly summarizes this concept noting that “the majority of mobile citizens of the global north are normalized travelers who accept the need security passes for fast-tracking through the airport as they accept the need for frequent flyer cards to get access to the club lounges, a focused surveillance is reserved for the sans-papiers, the potential terrorist, the refugee – those ‘trapped in the imperative of mobility’” (2008, p. 44).

Biometric technologies are thus not neutral but both constitutive and symbolic of transformations in power and social classification and exclusion. By their very nature, biometrics form components of technological systems that imply the assembling of digitized databases on an unprecedented scale. Scholars such as Lyon (2008) remain concerned that such databases are being assembled amidst a “state of exception,” whereby nation-states increasingly enact decisions based upon political will rather than the constraints of normative law (Agamben 2005). Thus it could be argued that biometrics are deployed within a social context and organizing logic that inevitably heads towards exclusionary rather than inclusionary functioning. The potential for “actuarial justice” where the objective is risk management rather than rehabilitation and where predictors of dangerousness are engaged to preemptively target “problem” populations becomes amplified.

While a substantial scholarship has emerged around the issue of borders, the principal focus here is on how biometric systems connected to databases have facilitated the “delocalized border” (Bigo 2002). Aas (2005, p. 207) has observed that new technologies “seem both to transform the traditional space of government and to disrupt territorial boundaries,” as well as appearing to provide the most efficient solution to problems of risk and security. The borders of the global north are fast becoming high-tech borders, “capable of materializing in different sites around the globe” (Walters 2006, p. 197). Actuarial logic requires that containment measures be applied before any harm results (Wilson and Weber 2008). Risk thinking in relation to border control therefore leads inexorably to temporal, and hence spatial, displacement of the border. Thus the delocalized, technologically realized border is “performed” rather than drawn as a line on a map, is functional rather than physical (Weber 2006), and significantly reorganizes the spatiality of power (Walters 2006).

The logic of exclusion inherent in border control, coupled with mentalities of “risk reduction” and corresponding information technologies, produces strategies of “preemptive immobilization” aimed at certain categories of travelers who conform to set criteria. These risk profiles are constructed using aggregate information about suspect populations, and applied through information technologies accessed by immigration authorities and their agents on or before the border. Surveillance technologies therefore expand the potential codes and categories of risk (O’Malley 2006). Nevertheless, border control is underpinned by more than a simple exclusionary logic. States have been seeking migration flows that are simultaneously accelerated for some and fortified against others, most often expressed as a binary opposition between “facilitation” and “security.” Scholars have variously described this bifurcation of mobility – broadly equating to the increasing economic chasm between the global south and the global north – as the widening divide between “global tourists” and “global vagabonds,” the sorting of mobile bodies into “kinetic elites” and “kinetic underclasses,” the “mobility rich” and the “mobility poor,” and “two-speed citizenship” (Bauman 1998; Adey 2004; Aas 2011).

For nation-states the engagement of biometric technology at physical borders bears a signification that neatly encapsulates the paradoxes of state sovereignty under conditions of globalization. Biometric technology offers the possibility of rapid flows of capital and global elites through borders while simultaneously fortifying the border against unwanted intrusions from “deviant” outsiders. The technology becomes instrumental in processes of global social classification in which “low risk” travelers are granted unimpeded access and mobility while “high risk” travelers from the Global South, compelled to travel with limited or no documentation, are excluded and blocked. Registered traveler programs highlight this two-tiered system of mobility emerging in the post 9/11 context. Privileged passenger programs facilitate the rapid and unimpeded movement of elite travelers from the global north. Simultaneously those from the global south are increasingly blocked from entry. In a global economy where mobility is equated to participation the consequences of this discrimination are enormously significant. In the US as such these systems of preferential mobility are encouraged in law. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act 2002 provides that the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security may establish requirements to implement trusted traveler programs. Registered Traveler Programs are intended not only to provide selected travelers with expedited processing at border points, but also to “target security resources to those travelers who might pose greater security risks.”

Such systems have however been in place for some time. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service Passenger Accelerated Service System (INSPASS) a hand geometry system used in seven US and two Canadian airports has been in operation since 1993 (GAO 2003). Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was the world’s first airport to employ an automatic border control system using iris recognition technology for travelers. The “Privium” system, installed in October 2001, is intended to fast track passengers carrying an iris data-embedded smart card through passport control (Woodward et al. 2003, pp. 295–296; Lyon 2003, p. 71). Similar projects have also been under-taken in other locations. At Tokyo’s Narita airport frequent customers of Japan Airlines are enrolled in a comparable system, has have been selected passengers at London’s Heathrow airport and at Toronto and Vancouver (Wilson 2006). Biometric border control systems thus serve to exacerbate the trend identified by Bauman as “the extraterritoriality of the new global elite and the forced territoriality of the rest” (2000, p. 221). Biometric technology is therefore both a powerful signifier and a formative element in the widening chasm between a small global elite possessed of mobility and capital and the many in the global south geographically confined and impoverished.

It has been argued that states with diminished control of economic and social questions within their national boundaries increasingly turn to border security and migration control as key “performances” asserting their continued relevance and strength (Wilson and Weber 2008; Wilson 2006). Political scientist Wendy Brown suggests that border construction projects are “hyperbolic tokens” that attempt to signify resurgent nation-state sovereignty, despite the reality that they are often expressions of the withering of the nation-state and “the waning relevance and cohesiveness of the form” (Brown 2010, p. 24). For the truncated nation-states of late modernity, biometric technologies are potent signifiers of a reinvigorated sovereign power with the capacity to assert impermeable borders. Iris and fingerprint scanners, passport kiosks, and smart cards are, from this perspective, integral props in the theater of statehood.

Such a theater of statehood is nowhere more in evidence than in the increased securitization of airports. The 9/11 attacks, and earlier instances such as the TWA flight crash in 1996, have been instrumental in facilitating heightened security measures in airports, and in embedding airports in public consciousness as filters of risk (Adey 2004). As border posts airports thus have substantial symbolic capital. As a report on Australian airport security noted “perhaps as important as their contributions to transportation and the wider economy is the symbolic significance attached to airports. They embody the modern world in all its complexity, since few other places bring together our most advanced technological creations and the intricate interconnected systems we have devised to serve both those creations and ourselves” (Wheeler 2005, p. 5). As highly symbolic nodes of modernity, airports become crucial platforms through which the power of the state to include and exclude is enacted. The centrality of securitizing airports in the post 9/11 environment then has powerful signifying functions. Mike Davis suggests that airports may function as microcosmic spaces of wider security and surveillance trends, noting that “the security regime of the airport departure lounges will likely provide a template for the regulation of crowds at malls, shopping concourses, sports events and elsewhere” (2001, p. 45). Biometric identification systems are integral elements of the intensified security regimes evident in airports (Zuriek and Hindle 2004, p. 129).

The signifying and political functions of biometric technology are also evident in its incorporation within the international passport system. Passports are the primary document for identifying, regulating, and tracing mobile individuals. The passport is, as Salter suggests, “a modern heuristic device which serves to link individuals to foreign policy, and according to which government agents classify travellers as safe or dangerous, desirable or undesirable, according to national, social or political narratives” (2004, p. 72). The spread of biometric passports has largely been dictated by US legislation, and offers a tangible expression of US hegemonic power in the post 9/11 global order. Section 302 of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act 2001 requires “a visa waiver country, in order to maintain program participation, to certify by October 26, 2003, that it has a program to issue to its nationals qualifying machine-readable passports that are tamper proof and contain biometric identifiers.”

The hegemonic power of the US is therefore instrumental in leading and setting the final standards for the global introduction of biometric passports (Wilson 2006). The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the organization governing international civil aviation, has been examining the issue of biometric passports since 1995. However, until recently national and regional legislation protecting privacy and civil liberties mitigated against their adoption. In May 2003, the G8 countries (Canada, UK, France, Japan, Italy, Russia, Germany, and the US) entered into an agreement to implement a biometric passport system. Civil libertarians remain troubled that passports will utilize face recognition, not only among the least reliable of biometrics but also one that can be used at a distance to track individuals without their knowledge. Moreover the passports are to include RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. These are tiny computer chips that, when receiving a radio signal from an RFID reader, use that power to transmit the data they store. And in US passports this information would include name, date of birth, place of birth, and a digital photograph and digital face recognition template. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union maintain that this raises substantial privacy and security issues and significantly intensifies the potential for the surveillance and tracking of individuals.

Critics maintain that biometric passports are a proxy for a global database. The International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance, for example, argues that biometric passports represent one avenue of obtaining “nearly universal registration of everyone on the planet” (cited in Wilson 2006). For critics the potentially ominous ramifications of this development reside not in the documents themselves but in the possible databases linked to them and the tracking and classification potential they unleash. The assemblage and mobilization of large-scale government databases in relation to visa applications and the tracking of “non-citizens” was evident in the detention of hundreds of Muslim non-citizens in the wake of September 11. US authorities systematically registered and created dossiers on nearly every male over the age of 15 with origins in a list of countries (mostly Muslim) traveling in the US. Individuals on the list were required to report to the government to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned. Those who failed to register risked deportation and criminal penalties. This was carried out under the aegis of a program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) (Wilson 2006).

The registration that occurred under NSEERS has been expanded via a program called US-VIST to most visitors to the US. A similar system in the EU, the Visa Information System (VIS) has been developed in the EU to capture and store information – including biometric information – from all visa applications to EU member states (Wilson 2006). The storage of this data and its linkage across databases will facilitate surveillance and monitoring on an unprecedented scale. The integration of biometric technologies into the international passport and visa system is then both a signification and realization of new forms of power. The technologizing of the border via biometrics betokens a renewed capacity of nation-states to police their boundaries. Technologized means of exerting control over movement form elements of “processes of statecraft” whereby the sovereignty of the state is enacted through processes of inclusion and expulsion. Such expressions of sovereignty have significant repercussions on the ground, as expanding databases facilitate new and powerful forms of cataloging, coding and filing individual identities. Increasingly too, databases are globalized through the incorporation of biometric identifiers in the international passport and visa system, an architecture forged by the US that some have suggested opens up the possibility of a global ID.

Post 9/11 questions of migration and mobility are increasingly interpreted through the prism of security (Guild 2009). States of the global north have assessed the specter of uncontrolled migration as a threat to sovereignty. Within this rhetoric asylum seekers and refugees are increasingly cast as “folk devils” in moral panics fuelled by law and order politics (Wilson 2006).

The demonization and criminalization of asylum seekers has been accompanied by coercive measures such as indefinite detention and forced deportation. In the nation states of the global north such coercive measures are elements of more sustained processes of criminalization whereby the act of seeking asylum is itself constructed as a “crime of arrival.”

Consequently it is perhaps unremarkable that biometric identification systems have initially been deployed on asylum seeker populations, where they serve as technological signifiers of the securitization of migration. Biometric identification systems involving fingerprinting those seeking asylum have become increasingly common and are in use in the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia (Woodward et al. 2003; Wilson 2006). The United Kingdom’s Home Office has adopted a biometric solution in the identification of asylum seekers within the UK. Asylum seekers are issued an Application Registration Card that carries a template of the bearer’s fingerprints, as well as their photograph, name, date of birth, and nationality (Home Office UK, 2002). The ARC is designed to facilitate rapid identification of asylum seekers following initial processing at ports of entry or at the Asylum Seekers Unit in Croydon. The objective of the card is to facilitate identification of asylum seekers by authorities. In so doing the ARC firmly inscribes and secures a “noncitizen” identity on individual asylum seekers. The system is designed not so much to facilitate access to services as to deny them, one stated purpose of the system being to counter fraud through the claiming of services under multiple identities (Woodward et al. 2003, p. 290.)

Similar schemes are also initiated in the EU, US, and Canada. The countries of the European Union have established EURODAC, an automated fingerprint identification system. In the Convention of Dublin, June 15, 1990, the member states of the European Union agreed that the first country where the applicant arrives was to be responsible for their application. This was to preclude one country passing asylum seekers on to another, as well as asylum seekers submitting multiple applications in different member states (Van der Ploeg 1999, p. 298). EU ministers responsible for immigration established a Community wide system for the comparison of fingerprints of asylum applicants in 1991, while the agreement to build a central fingerprint database of asylum seekers was established in 1997 by the European Council. EURODAC was tested in 2002, and from January 15, 2003, asylum seekers fingerprints have been taken whenever they seek asylum, whether inside or outside the EU’s borders. Fingerprints are then digitally transferred from member states to a central EURODAC unit for comparison against the existing database. Fingerprints of asylum seekers can be stored for up to 10 years, or immediately erased if an applicant is granted nationality in a member state. In addition to asylum seekers, EURODAC is also a biometric database of “persons who have crossed an external frontier of the Community in an irregular manner.” These “foreign nationals” have their biometric data retained for 2 years or immediately erased if they receive a residence permit or leave the territory of the EU (Wilson 2006).

EURODAC was justified by the EU Council in terms of the need to accelerate decisions on asylum bids. Another powerful rationale behind the establishment EURODAC was a perceived need to stem “asylum shopping” across member states of the EU and separate those categorized as “legitimate” asylum seekers from other categories of migrant. Across nation-states of the global north biometric technology is being extensively deployed to demarcate and signify identities of “non-citizens.” This process is intertwined with the wider securitization of migration as a political issue and the attendant discursive criminalization of migrant identities. International relations scholars have noted the significance of policing borders not only to preserve the integrity of the nation-state but as a marker and arbiter of state sovereignty overall. Increasingly the identity of the asylum seeker has been configured as a site on which state sovereignty is enacted. The capacity to establish legitimacy, confirm identity, and expel those deemed “illegitimate” has thus been a pivotal “performance of sovereignty” (Pickering 2005).

The particular focus upon asylum seekers in biometric deployment is intertwined with the securitization of migration and the criminalization of persons seeking to move from the global south to the global north. The issuing of smart entitlement cards and the targeting of “illegal” migrants with biometric technologies serves to wend discourses of terrorism, organized crime, and migration as a single coherent threat to national sovereignty. The need for biometric data incorporated into travel documents is most often cited as “national security” – meaning security from “illegal” migrants and terrorists. However, in practice such documents inscribe on those seeking asylum the identity of “non-citizen.” Fixing these “non-citizen” identities through biometric documentation and “entitlement” cards serves to heighten exclusion and reinforces the notion of migration as a problem of security.

Biometrics has become a pivotal technology in a range of security domains but most evidently in border control. Its ascendancy has been partially due to the expanding security market – both public and private – in the post 9/11 global north. Critical scholars, however, dispute the claims of the technical literature which frequently asserts the neutrality of the technology. It is argued that biometric databases are integral to processes of social sorting that distinguish between the eligible and ineligible, the included and the excluded, the banished and the admitted. Moreover biometric databases have deterritorialized the border, creating a situation in which the border is – quite literally – everywhere. Biometric technologies have also played an instrumental role in facilitating the enhanced mobility of a privileged elite from the global north through trusted traveler programs while impeding the movement of those from the global south through risk profiles and categorizations of dangerousness.


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