Biometrics from the Margins

From fingerprint to iris scans, biometrics—the application of statistical analysis to biological data—is increasingly part of people’s lives, especially in postcolonial countries such as Kenya. Though often portrayed as a frontier market for cutting-edge biometric technologies, Kenya has a long and fraught history with fingerprinting, which was used by British colonial authorities to monitor and discipline African laborers. Biometrics from the Margins asks: How have East Africans harnessed, transformed, and subverted biometric technologies since they were first introduced in the early twentieth century? Can an identification and registration technique long associated with colonial extraction be a means of accelerating political and financial inclusion for the world’s poor, as many proponents suggest? How are those at the physical and metaphorical margins of the nation (including migrants, nomadic populations, refugees, & border communities, who have historically struggled to access identity documents) navigating the new world of digital identity? Supporters argue that digital biometrics will enable African countries to “leapfrog” to new stages of development. This project flips the script by showing that digital biometrics, though a novel technology, is layered atop an older, analog history.

This project has been generously funded by a 2019 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship, a 2019-20 Fulbright US Scholar award, a 2018 BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, and a 2017 thematic research grant from the British Institute in Eastern Africa. I have also received funding from Privacy International and the Alan Turing Institute to work on interrelated research.


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