Not only oil: Iraq and the theft of identities

I spent last week in the US. While there I had the opportunity to read more US newspapers than usually I do. An article on the Washington Post, which appeared last Saturday, 1st of December, has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the effects of the War in Iraq beyond the visible damage and tragedies. Actually, despite the entire piece being interesting, it was a small part of it that forced me to stop and think. The article, Spurred by Gratitude, is a short report on ‘Bomb Lady’, alias Dr Anh Duong , a 47 year old Vietnamese scientist, mother of the first thermobaric US bomb, and other new US military killing toys used during the, quite terrorist in itself, War on Terror. A nice lady who seems to use her personal experience of Vietnam, her gratitude to the US, and her knowledge for developing the most lethal weapons for her adoptive country in the hope that they can be a deterrent against any force which would wish to confront the US. She declares that she is against the war and does not ‘want [her] kids to think violence is the answer’, and that the US uses weapons only for good reasons. And how does she know this? Of course, she has a blind trust in the US government and believes that they would never misuse her toys of death. I am sure that actually the monthly check she receives aids in her blindness and is the best guarantee of the good intentions of Bush&Co.

Yet as I was telling you, it was not the story of this peace-loving patriotic, disinterested, lady which attracted my attention. It is what casually the Washington post reported:

Duong’s most recent innovation, the Joint Expeditionary Forensics Facilities (JEFF) project or “lab in a box,” analyzes biometrics. It will be delivered to Iraq at the beginning of 2008, the Navy said, to help distinguish insurgents from civilians….Betro said the military has been scanning the irises and taking the fingerprints of Iraqis, feeding a biometrics data base in West Virginia.

The systematic collection of biometric and personal data of the Iraqi population is proceeding without any major challenge or discussion. Very silent, but very effective. The Iraqi population will be the first to be completely finger printed, biometrically archived and have their own personal identity and DNA detained and owned by another country (in this case the US). Little by little, child by child, family by family all the people of Iraq will be part of the greatest identity database. In other words, in Iraq the most sophisticated and grandiose identity theft is currently both legally authorised and underway while nobody cares.

Of course, the census of colonised populations is nothing new. It was the invention of my ancestors, the Romans, as some of you may recall during Christmas when the nativity story is narrated again and again. Yet this cannot be compared with the sophisticated system with which the US government is collecting data of every person entering in contact with the American Eagle either because of being under its occupation, or because of visiting the US.

In Iraq this is one of the greatest examples of new colonialism. First of all, though the US government suggests that the database is the best way to discern the free-killable bad guys from the collateral-killable civilians, the ID profile of Iraqis has an economic value even superior to oil. It is an investment for the future, since, as unfortunately many of us may know, today personal data is gold, not only for fraudulent people, but legal companies (think about the insurance companies for instance). Second, when the US government has the entire biometric, DNA, and fingerprinting of the Iraqi people, it can easily, without explanation, add people to terrorist lists without their knowledge. Moreover, they can even reproduce a ‘biometrically’ real you and use your identity for whatever, I expect illicit, reason they wish.

Iraqis are not only losing their land, their freedom and hope to be a nation, but also their identity and future. Of all the plans, the identity-theft is probably the action that will have the most unpredictable consequences for the future of Iraq. However, if it happens that you were not very interested in the abuse of the Iraqi personal IDs, there is bad news also for you: Iraq is the place in which technologies are developed for colleting personal data without the person’s knowledge, and terrorism (the official reason for the war in Iraq) will be soon the official reason for the definitive suppression of what is left of our western data protection acts.

Now, if the situation was not just worrying as it is, we have also to consider another danger. The more data you store, the more difficult it is to keep safe. What has happened in the UK can provide a good example of the disaster that can easily occur to state centralised identity data. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has lost computer disks containing confidential details of 25 million child benefit recipients. And if you ask whether this is just an exception, I can tell you that it is the one which confirms the rule, as you can read in this BBC article .

In our British case, the worst that can happen is that people would free you of your bank account, or make “you” rich with their dodgy and illegal transactions, or use your identity to access illicit websites, commit fraud in your name, commit terrorism of all sort in your name, and possibly one morning you can be woken up by the most efficient alarm of all: the armed scream of ‘Police-police!’. The good news is that probably you will survive. You will see the sun again.

Your Iraqi fellow, whose identity has been recorded in all aspects, can have a very different destiny. The US is carefully, also thanks to anthropologists, recording not only the religion of Iraqis, but also their sects, tribes and affiliations. All data that can be the death sentence of any of them. Iraq has the highest possibility of witnessing one of the bloodiest civil wars that we may recall.

The total failure of the US operations and actions have increased this possibility, in particular along the line of Shi’a versus Sunni conflict. If the data collected on the Iraqi people ends in the wrong hands, by mistake or calculated political plans, it could be a weapon much, much worse than any Dr Duong could have dreamed of.


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