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Identity as convention: biometric passports and the promise of security

Maren Behrensen (Centre for Applied Ethics, IKK, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden)

Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

ISSN: 1477-996X

Article publication date: 4 March 2014




The paper is a conceptual investigation of the metaphysics of personal identity and the ethics of biometric passports. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


Philosophical argument, discussing both the metaphysical and the social ethics/computer ethics literature on personal identity and biometry.


The author argues for three central claims in this paper: passport are not simply representations of personal identity, they help constitute personal identity. Personal identity is not a metaphysical fact, but a set of practices, among them identity management practices (e.g. population registries) employed by governments. The use of biometry as part of these identity management practices is not an ethical problem as such, nor is it something fundamentally new and different compared to older ways of establishing personal identity. It is worrisome, however, since in the current political climate, it is systematically used to deny persons access to specific territories, rights, and benefits.


The paper ties together strands of philosophical inquiry that do not usually converse with one another, namely the metaphysics of personal identity, and the topic of identity in social philosophy and computer ethics.



Research for this paper was carried out with funding from the EU-FP7 FIDELITY large-scale integrating project (Grant No. SEC-2011-284862). Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at a colloquium at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and at conferences in Amsterdam (“Illegality Regimes” at the Free University Amsterdam) and Kolding (“ETHICOMP” at University of Southern Denmark). The author would like to thank those who attended these presentations for their questions and comments. The author is particularly grateful to Jeffrey Kahn, who introduced the paper in Amsterdam, and whose generous feedback has undoubtedly improved its argument.


Behrensen, M. (2014), "Identity as convention: biometric passports and the promise of security", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 44-59.



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