24 Feb 2010 Biometric Data

UK visa mug shots

This morning my father drove me and Sam up to an immigration facility in northeast Philadelphia so we could submit our “biometric data” to the UK consulate in support of our Tier 1 visa application. “Biometric data” made me think on the one hand of technologically advanced body scanners that could calculate blood pressure, heart rate, BMI, and daily rate of cellular decay; on the other hand, it reminded me of 19th-century phrenology. I imagined myself walking on a treadmill, while a Victorian doctor measured my skull. Too many lumps and the doctor would say, “No, this woman is too… bumpy for us. But you might try Australia or Canada.”

But no, biometric data turns out to be fingerprints and photographs. And whereas Sam had to submit photographs, the UK does not require immigrants under the age of 5 to be fingerprinted. That was fortunate because we had a hard enough time getting her to pose naturally for the photo. (I was instructed not to smile. Little kids are allowed to smile, but Sam kept producing grimace after grimace. “I thought I had to look like you, Mom!”)

The fingerprinting was digital and as I watched the official roll each of my fingertips slowly from left to right on the computer pad I said, “Wow, I had no idea my fingerprints were so lined.” I could barely see any whorls– just lines and crisscross scratches like the fine mesh of a vinyl table cover.

“Yes, your prints are really hard to capture. You have so many lines. You must wash your hands a lot.”

I glanced at my 4 year old rolling on the carpet behind me. “Yeah,” I said, “I do wash them a lot.”

The official smeared my thumb a second time on the digital pad, frowned, wiped my thumb with a cloth, and then spread my basket-weave print again, slowly.

Then she said. “It’s a good thing you’re not an applicant for US immigration. They’d never accept these prints. We’d have to do them all over.


“Yeah,” she wiped my forefinger, rolled it again. “But for the UK visa, this is OK. They don’t really care. They just want us to capture the prints.”

So it turns out that biometric data collection is no tutting bearded doctor brandishing a tape measure nor is it some cutting edge futuretech device that records an individual’s DNA sequence.

It’s just a bureaucratic exercise in gathering data that simple hand washing can render useless.

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