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Hardcover | $36.00 Short | £29.95 | 272 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 29 charts, 26 tables | November 2010 | ISBN: 9780262014779
eBook | $25.00 Short | November 2010 | ISBN: 9780262290074
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America Identified

Biometric Technology and Society


The use of biometric technology for identification has gone from Orwellian fantasy to everyday reality. This technology, which verifies or recognizes a person’s identity based on physiological, anatomical, or behavioral patterns (including fingerprints, retina, handwriting, and keystrokes) has been deployed for such purposes as combating welfare fraud, screening airplane passengers, and identifying terrorists. The accompanying controversy has pitted those who praise the technology’s accuracy and efficiency against advocates for privacy and civil liberties.

In America Identified, Lisa Nelson investigates the complex public responses to biometric technology. She uses societal perceptions of this particular identification technology to explore the values, beliefs, and ideologies that influence public acceptance of technology. Drawing on her own extensive research with focus groups and a national survey, Nelson finds that considerations of privacy, anonymity, trust and confidence in institutions, and the legitimacy of paternalistic government interventions are extremely important to users and potential users of the technology. She examines the long history of government systems of identification and the controversies they have inspired; the effect of the information technology revolution and the events of September 11, 2001; the normative value of privacy (as opposed to its merely legal definition); the place of surveillance technologies in a civil society; trust in government and distrust in the expanded role of government; and the balance between the need for government to act to prevent harm and the possible threat to liberty in government’s actions.

About the Author

Lisa S. Nelson is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Table of Contents

  • America Identified
  • America Identified
  • Biometric Technology and Society
  • Lisa S. Nelson
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2011
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please e-mail
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Nelson, Lisa S. (Lisa Sue)
  • American identified: biometric technology and society / Lisa S. Nelson.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01477-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)
  • 1. Technological innovations—Social aspects. 2. Biometric identification.  3. Privacy Right of. 4. Social interaction—Technological innovations. I. Title.
  • HM846.N45 2011
  • 303.48′3—dc22
  • 2010011956
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 Modern Identification Systems 27
  • 2 September 11: A Catalyst for Biometrics? 59
  • 3 Privacy and Biometric Technology 81
  • 4 Anonymity 105
  • 5 Trust and Confidence 131
  • 6 Paternalism 159
  • 7 Conclusion 185
  • Appendix A: Safety of Identifiers: Factors of Education 197
  • Appendix B: Differences of Identity 203
  • Notes 211
  • References 225
  • Index 239


“Biometric identification in all its forms is becoming increasingly important to our brave new world of constant surveillance. In this highly approachable, wonderfully insightful book, Lisa Nelson walks us through an issue that should be of concern to policy makers, science studies scholars, and indeed all citizens.”
Geoffrey C. Bowker, Professor and Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship, University of Pittsburgh
“Societal perception of identification technology in general, and biometrics in particular, is a fascinating area of study. This book provides an excellent perspective on this topic, treating questions related to privacy, anonymity, trust, and paternalism in the context of biometrics. America Identified carefully discusses these issues and is, therefore, a welcome addition to the biometrics literature.”
Arun Ross, Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, West Virginia University