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Taken at Face Value: Facial Recognition, Border Enforcement, and the Cultural Politics of Identity

Nina Djanegara
Tue May 21st 2024, 2:00 - 3:00pm
Building 50, 51B

What do we believe the face can tell us about a person? In this ethnography of facial recognition technology, I examine how humans have programmed computers to see and how people interpret images that are generated by computers. In particular, I focus on the use of facial recognition to govern U.S. borders. In recent years, facial recognition technology has been installed at U.S. airports and border checkpoints in the hopes of detecting and disabling suspected terrorists, while simultaneously providing speedy passage for trustworthy travelers. Drawing from multi-sited fieldwork among technology developers, security industry experts, government officials, border guards, and anti-surveillance activists, I analyze how proponents and critics of facial recognition technology make claims about identity, citizenship, and belonging. My interest is the cultural and political logics that have made facial recognition appear to be a plausible and desirable solution for border control. In addition, my archival research shows that the border has been central to the development of facial recognition; I uncover a new genealogy that highlights how critical points in the technology’s evolution are linked to border policing, national security, and the outer reaches of U.S. empire. This dissertation speaks to existing scholarship in anthropology about identity, self-representation, and social recognition, while contemplating how these are mediated and reworked through the introduction of new surveillance technology. My project also contributes to the growing literature on racialized surveillance by tracing the shifting figures of ‘the Other’ that have animated facial recognition programs throughout different eras: the illegal immigrant, the terrorist, the consummate foreigner. 

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PW: 659621