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General News of Sunday, 20 July 2008

Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

Fingerprinting International Students: Has Biometrics Gone Too Far?

Benjamin Tawiah, London

The digital revolution has been helpful but it has not been particularly liberating. YouTube and MySpace offer nearly everything: from sons slugging it out with their own mothers, to thugs ‘happy-slapping’ their victims for a very strange form gratification that could only be digitally inspired. Computer games do the thinking for school children, most of whom carry laptops to class. So, the world wasn’t stunned when 17 teenage girls in one school in America decided to get themselves pregnant, as a silly girlie-girlie prank. Teenagers in Britain have gone past this level; they play with knifes and blades. Nearly every day, a teenager is killed in Britain by thugs who move in gangs, wearing hoods on their heads, with their trousers otto-phistically tugged at their ankles. One of those gangs nearly killed me last week when I peeped at them molesting a 50 something year old black African. The lads, numbering about 8, had accosted the old fellow, and pinned him down for interrogation, in a mock pre-deportation immigration tribunal hearing. They had asked the man his occupation, and he had answered that he was a student. The boys, all of them under 18 years, burst out laughing heartily, quizzing him what he had been studying for all those years. “Are you studying magic?” they joked. “You are illegal immigrant, innit,” another had asked. Then they demanded a proof of his student status. The old fellow did the Christ: He looked up and sighed: Father, forgive these young ones.

I wanted a story, so I stood in front of the train station watching, my digital voice recorder on the red. To get a clearer sound, I went nearer to the action. Immediately, they directed their attention at me: “What do you want?” I demanded to know what the old bloke had done wrong. Then as if on cue, the lads surged towards me, shouting at a decibel: “Who are you?” I am a journalist, I said. “Who do you write for, The Sun?” No, I write for a newspaper in Africa, I submitted. “Bollocks” (a slang here that means rubbish), do you have newspapers in Africa? One of them seized me by neck while the others joked: Are you pregnant? Why is your belly that big? They just got tired and disappeared after one of them had answered a telephone call. A bystander said: “Thank your God, they would have killed you. People easily die in such confrontations.”

The performance the lads put was the mock version of what international students go through in Britain. A Nigerian student told how uniformed police officers stopped and extensively interrogated him on his way to shopping. The questions ranged from his itinerary for the day to when he intends going back to his home country. The police have been empowered to stop, search and interrogate, as they deem fit. “What are you studying?” the officers had quizzed. “Did you go to school today?” The follow up was almost instantaneous: “Why didn’t you go?” What do you do when you are off? The answers you provide are not treated like routine weekly confessions in Catholicism; they are verified by electronic devices that go as far as fetching information on the colour of the tie and dye attire you wore at your first point of entry into the country. You would have the privilege of getting a free flight to your home country if you give a dodgy answer to their questions. Of course, the free food on the flight will always compensate for any losses, even if it is the never-on-schedule Ghana International Airline.

For so long, the student immigrant has been the target of many government immigration policies. Previously, any admission letter from a university or a college was enough to get an applicant a student visa to study abroad. The embassies of the industrialized countries were not very keen on a candidate’s ability to pay the tuition fees; a bank statement was sufficient proof. These days, an applicant needs to demonstrate that he has paid the tuition fees, or give sufficient indication that he can pay and live comfortably without recourse to public funds. That is even not satisfactory sometimes; he would need to show how he would meet other costs such as accommodation and miscellaneous expenditure. After that, the accreditation status of the college or university is checked. You usually cannot contest the results of the accreditation test, because at this stage you have no idea whether the university is housed in somebody’s kitchen or the vice chancellor sells chicken and chips in London. The college prospectus had said that Prof Patel is the vice chancellor, but it is only when you get to your college that you realize that every other lecturer is called Patel, Mrs. Patel being the secretary, with Patelet, their son, doubling as the founder and Academic registrar; a position that A.T Konu of University of Ghana worked very hard to get. He was a very decent man.

There is also the tricky business of showing how the course of study a student has chosen to undertake would benefit him. And it is not enough if the programme will help him alone; he would need to convince the entry clearance officer how the discipline will benefit his country. You do not have the luxury of asking why the university has the course on its curriculum if it would not help anybody. If you are able to jump that hurdle, you have the rather big task of persuading the officer that the course is not offered by any of the universities in Ghana, hence the need to travel abroad. They have often told many an applicant: “It is cheaper to study home.” An applicant was told to get some work experience with his first degree before travelling abroad for a master’s qualification. Another person was denied a student visa because he had no email address, yet he had applied to study Business Information Technology at the Maters level.

Of course, education is a right, so we would always have reason to study somewhere, even if it is abroad. Sometimes, the visa provides an escape route to the comfort zones of the west, so we are prepared for anything. Soon, we realize that the life of the student immigrant can be as disappointing as that of a policeman at a bribe-free barrier, or as discomforting as that of a gay headmaster in a girl’s secondary school. (See my previous writings on the Dilemma of the Student Burger). Before you settle down to start work and maybe attend lectures, it is time to renew your visa. This process used to be a very simple one, and it was for free. Now, it is very expensive and requires a lot of things: certified university documents, bank statements, attendance report (different from progress report), some £500 and most importantly, your fingers. Sure, you necessarily need all your 10 fingers (more if pregnant) for the newly introduced fingerprinting exercise. The policy says some applicants at given postcode areas would have to be fingerprinted, and already, a few students have had the experience. Soon, every student will have to buy themselves fingers anytime they renew their student visas. Those who have lost their fingers may need to borrow from next door. These measures have become necessary because of the increasingly dangerous world we live in. It will not be long before people are toeprinted, because fingerprinting may become ineffective in forensics someday. It is understandable that the exigencies of the times demand certain stringent measures, but is it not a step too far if the international student has to leave a bit of their humanity on computer screens anytime they renew their visas to continue studying? Fingerprinting is not a particularly bad thing; it helps all of us to detect otherwise elusive crimes. Not too long ago, an English thug who had lived the life of a serial rapist some thirty years ago was nabbed when his prints were matched to forensic evidence resulting from a recent crime. Since the introduction of the biometric system in Great Britain, port controls have been very effective and quite reassuring. It is a great relief that criminals who hitherto could sneak into our midst to disturb our peace, could today be flushed out at the touch of the computer screen. Even so, we risk making a John Proctor out of every soul if society becomes too much of a ‘Crucible’, where everybody is deemed a potential threat because nobody can be trusted. And to think that we have suddenly become unwilling actors in this melodrama, just because of one big uncle and his friends, makes biometrics quite tricky. It is not because the word biometrics end with the suffix ‘trics’; it is really because it is not a palatable experience having your intestines perused by a scanner because 16 year olds are bold enough to carry drugs in their underpants.

Well, maybe it is important that biometrics has come to stay. But what are the human rights people saying? Presently, civil liberty groups in Britain are protesting against a government policy which would make it mandatory for everybody’s phone calls, emails, text messages and internet browsing to be stored on a database. The Labour government would force telecoms and web companies to hand over transcripts of people’s private everyday conversation. So, in future it would be possible for government officials to disclose to two rivals contradictory texts messages that their lover has been sending to opposing camps, complete with dates and times. If the plan succeeds, as it will, we risk creating a biometric Stasi-style society, where everyone would be informing on everyone else. If this is the kind of society we want to create in the 21st century, imagine what would happen in the 22nd. Maybe, we would soon have video recorders installed on everybody’s toilets and in our bedrooms, so that those with reoccurring diarrhoea symptoms can be gagged or banished to Siberia. In much the same way, those who snore like Labadi-Apapa trotro engines and walk in their sleep like Lady Macbeth, will be made to take military exercises to keep them fit and healthy.

There are always Libertarians who would argue that we face a greater threat if we become slaves to science and technology in our bid to protect and preserve life. If terror suspects are necessarily fingerprinted for their crimes, and the prints of innocent students, very few of whom may be studying terrorism as a course, are also taken during simple visa renewal exercises, then the value of life seems to have been underappreciated. In the face of the overwhelming need to stamp out terrorism, a British Shadow Home Office Minister won a by-election when he resigned over the government’s decision to extend the time that terror suspects can be held in jail to 42 days. That he won unchallenged is a signal that folks prefer civility and moderation to any measure that would overnight lump us all together is a biometric saucepan as potential criminals. Fingerprinting doesn’t appear harmful, but it carries with it a certain awful feeling that is comparable to the treatment the English teenagers meted out to the granddad ‘magic’ student. It appears to be a mock criminal interrogation of your fingers, instead of your face. Benjamin Tawiah is a freelance journalist; he lives in London.


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