Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Copyright, heritage, audio, preservation, Library of Congress

In Reuters story on Yahoo, Lynn Adler reports that the FBI seized John Lennons fingerprints just before they were auctioned off. There was some confusion on the part of the auction house about why the FBI would be concerned about the fingerprints of a man 30 years dead.

While I understand the confusion, the FBI's concern was that the fingerprints, which were part of John Lennon's citizenship application, might have been taken from his government files. If they were, they shouldn't have been available to be auctioned off.

The story didn't say if the FBI discovered the fingerprints were actually taken from government files, but it started me thinking. Does the government have the right to confiscate fingerprint records, or should it? Today I would say no, in most cases. But technology, law enforcement, and crime are rapidly changing. So will the answer still be no in 10 years? 20? 50? What will be possible in that time frame?

It is surprisingly easy to forge fingerprints. Superglue, a bottlecap, some woodglue and a little care and patience make it possible, and instructions are easy to find on the internet. I'm not sure a fake fingerprint made that way will last very long, but with a little more time and technology it could be possible to have fake fingerprints that last through hours of hard wear.

Looking at how easy it is to fake fingerprints, I can see the FBI not wanting a full set of celebrity fingerprints floating around in the wild. If it were possible to wear fake fingerprints without loosing significant tactile sensitivity I could see a black market built around the fingerprints of dead people. It would be relatively easy for a crooked funeral home to record fingerprints and sell them on the black market. Or perhaps a hospital or city morgue. In that case having fingerprint records of everyone who dies might be an important way to make sure law enforcement makes efficient use of resources. Knowing that the fingerprints you've discovered at a crime scene belong to a dead person would save time that would otherwise be spent looking for a dead person.

I don't actually expect to see that type of forgery becoming widespread in my lifetime. Unless you want to make it look like a particular person it makes a lot more sense to avoid leaving fingerprints. But what about other biometric data. Will it one day be possible to forge rhetina scans? What about genetic data?

Have you seen the movie, Gattaca? It's the story of a world in which most children are genetically tailored to have all the best traits of both parents. Children born the old fashioned way are discriminated against. The protagonist buck's the system by faking his genetic identity. But it's not easy, and the authorities are tipped off when they find an eyelash that does not match anyone who should be working where the hero is working. Gattaca is the story of genetic fingerprinting carried to the extreme as a means of identification and class discrimination.

There are a lot of good reasons to give the authorities more power to gather data and spy on citizens in aggregate. And there are a lot of reasons to limit that power. It is a constant tug of war for control between governmental authority, whether it's local, state, or federal, and citizens. And that tug of war must continue. Anarchy is not a good system of government, but neither is the "Big Brother of Orwell's "1984" or the Huxley's vision of "Brave New World." There is a lot of room between total individual freedom and total government control, and it's up to us to make sure we don't travel too far toward the extremes.