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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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Anthropometrical Signalment

A constellation of events in the late nineteenth century forced governments to find better ways to identify the people within their borders. The first was the rise of the modern city, in which people routinely carried out their day-to-day business with strangers. In the city, citizens needed a way of identifying each other so they could avoid being cheated: identity promotes accountability. The second event was the improved ease of travel, which created waves of immigrants seeking new homes. In short order, xenophobic lawmakers throughout Europe and the United States passed strict immigration laws to keep out the newly mobile foreigners. This, in turn, created a need for strong identification systems to let officials distinguish citizens from noncitizens. The third reason for strong identification was the nouveau concept of criminal rehabilitation—the idea that people who committed a crime could be rehabilitated and set on a new path, rather than simply put to death or exiled. Some sort of identification system was required to distinguish a first-time pickpocket from a habitual offender.

It was the problem of identifying convicted criminals that caught the attention of Alphonse Bertillion (1853-1914), a Parisian anthropologist. How do you identify a pickpocket who has been caught for the fourth time, if each time the crook is arrested he gives a different name? How is it possible to establish the continuity of identity without the cooperation of the individual? ...

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