Mobile Threats and Biometrics | A Sketchy Analysis

“On one hand, the slave is the foundation of the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the position of the unthought.”

— Saidiya Hartman, The Position of the Unthought

“There is no liberalism without a culture of danger.”

— Michel Foucault

To be honest, I haven’t been closely following the stories about ‘Jihadist travel movements’. Instead, I have been following the—you could say—more mundane stories about ‘mobile banditism’, that is, in the words of Rosa Koenraadt and Katinka van de Ven, “itinerant criminal groups [from Eastern Europe] who by means of hit-and-run tactics commit one or multiple crimes against property.” The police has been tracking ‘itinerant Eastern European gangs’ since the late 20th century, and determined in a recent study that the Netherlands is increasingly affected by this form of transnational organized crime.

Even though, ‘Jihadist travel movements’ and ‘mobile banditism’, as public narratives, differ in quite distinct ways—most notably on an affective level—they are both nevertheless grounded on a precautionary logic that strongly favours order and safeguarding what ‘we’ have (be that democracy, property, freedom, etc.). Both narratives securitize mobility, and are, as such, concerned with monitoring, detection, traceability, and prevention. And both have led to calls for better exchange of information so that the police can get a clearer view of the most commonly used routes by ‘mobile threats’.


Spatial mobility[1] of ‘suspicious’ bodies and ‘dangerous’ ideas and affects is increasingly understood, if unmonitored, as a politically risky activity that is expected to cause “anomie, [and] social disorganization.” In ‘a Europe without borders’ where mobile threats are a cause for concern, whose mobility will be flagged as ‘suspicious’? How do states differentiate between authorized (‘legitimate’) and unauthorized (‘illegitimate’) mobility (so as to prevent or deter the latter)? Whose mobility is perceived as a possible threat to the democratic legal order? Who are able to move freely?

All these questions foreground, of course, the ambiguity of a ‘borderless Europe’ and raise issues of bodily norms. In the Schengen zone, how do intelligence agencies (and the police may also be counted among those) identify whom and where to search? Intelligence agencies depend, more and more, on technology-based search methods, that enable them to gather and link up bits of information as a means to ‘pre-empt’ crimes and thwart ‘extremist’ acts. Risk analyses based on collected data and available information, a network of communicating or integrated sensor systems, and improved imaging techniques, as well as biometric technologies provide intelligence agencies with an increased ability to anticipate risk and identify ‘dangerous’ individuals. Through biometric technologies (which include signature verification, iris scans, fingerprints, and behavioural means such as keystroke dynamics, mouse dynamics, and gait) the body itself is used as “a document for identification, and as a source for prediction.”

Biometrics turn individuals into “informational flows and communication patterns,” through a digitization of body parts. As such, it is not surprising that social media has been branded ‘the new DNA’—the body, as biological and digital information, as well as “the innermost aspects of [one’s life]”, can be accessed, traced, tracked, and analyzed. Biometric technologies, which aim to make bodies readable, are often touted as means of bypassing bodily norms and “avoiding the liability of racial profiling.” However, as scholars like Simone Browne and Joseph Pugliese have argued, calcified notions of race, ancestry, gender, and ability, as well as your ‘legal status’, are “infrastructurally encoded” in so-called ‘objective’ digitized biometrics, and “continue to enforce bodily norms consistent with profiling practices.”

What’s more, those charged with safeguarding the stability of civil society, such as police officers, often rely on their “professional intuition.” And, as Simone Browne illustrates in Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics, the validity of identification documents can become suspect in the hands of racialized bodies. Policing by “professional intuition,” and governing through risk-analyses of “the ‘informatized’ body” have serious implications—both risk, and intuition operate at the intersection of cognitive capacity (thinking) and affective state (feeling). Which bodies might trigger a visceral response? Who will be—based on collected data and professional intuition—flagged as suspicious? Or, to restate the question, whose “states of mind and sentiment might be considered concerns of state”? Whose psychic dispositions and affective attachments are perceived to pose a threat to the nation, political stability, the democratic state law, and Dutch economic interests?


Much of this preoccupation is implicit in the recent speech from the Throne. The speech itself is a conventional piece of bad political writing. However, it is significant in several ways. From the outset, it is clear that the speechwriters (are willing to) tap into White paranoia and fear in order to alert citizens to ‘our vulnerability’, and mobilize ‘the nation’. To that end, the fate of the passengers and crew of MH17 is rendered a vehicle for the consolidation of ‘the nation’, and made to serve as evidence of ‘our insecurity’. As the writers note, the fate of MH17 “visibly united [the nation] in silence and grief.” Through a sentimentality that, in many respects, nationalized the MH17 air disaster, the nation is recuperated under the sign of “immense personal loss.” Sentimental rhetoric relies on the assertion of shared loss, and pain.

The poignancy of the tragedy was heightened by mainstream media who argued that the impact of the MH17 air disaster was of a magnitude comparable to 9/11. Such a comparison is a transparent, if not shameless, attempt to not only capitalize on the affective charge of September 11, but also conjure the spectre of the ‘Muslim terrorist’. This proximity is further advanced in the speech. In a seamless fashion, the MH17 air disaster is rhetorically linked to “the situations in Ukraine and the Middle East.” However, the accidental downing of a civilian airliner is of a different order than war and civil unrest. And yet the tragic MH17 accident is presented as evidence of the vulnerability of “freedom and security” in the Netherlands. MH17 has been made a prime strand out of the many in a web of anxieties and uncertainties that testifies to the dangers of living “in an open and outward-looking country that is actively part of the global community.”

Embeddedness in the world polity, the speechwriters argue, provides both opportunity and liability. Even though, openness and participation in the global community have proven beneficial to the nation, such an accessibility and participation, however, exposes ‘us’ at the same time to “real risks and makes us vulnerable.” There is a strong implication within the text that domestic and foreign agents exploit the nation’s traditional openness, and a new openness, brought about by technology and new media, that cannot be controlled by the Dutch government.

What struck me the most in the speech is how radicalism (extremism) is rhetorically coupled to “new threats such as the Ebola outbreak,” which articulates radicalism, in this case ‘militant Islam’, in terms of a contagion. The speechwriters note that,

“Conflicts thousands of miles away excite emotions and provoke responses here at home.”

“The hate that tears communities apart elsewhere in the world must not be allowed to spill over into our streets.”

Apart from exposing a preoccupation with invasions, if not inundations, these statements also stress the dangers of the communicability of affect. Unruly passions, it seems, hold the possibility to bring about not only the ruination of the rule of law and democracy, but also state authority. Moreover, the image of the Netherlands as a ‘loving’, ‘peaceful’, ‘non-violent’ nation comes into being through the mobilization of hate “elsewhere in the world.” The diagnosis of ‘deviance’ and hate, as Jin Haritaworn argues, “always already emanates from racialised bodies and ‘minds’,” whose loyalties are, thus, inherently suspect.

Improper affective attachments and dispositions are presented as destabilizing and, therefore, dangerous. In Affective States, Ann Stoler emphasizes the centrality of affect to the “political rationalities” of state authority. Affect, more so than rationality, is “what permits sufficient stability of institutional forms so that constitutional lore may plausibly be elaborated at all.” As Stoler notes, colonial governance centred on “assessing proper sentiments” and “fashioning techniques of affective control” designed to foster “reasoned feeling” among citizens. National security has been grounded in the careful regulation of bodies and affect within public space. As such, surveillance has operated not only on the body, but also at the level of affect, and subjectivity. In other words, surveillance concerns itself not only with the body, but also with the “psychic investments directing feeling toward the nation itself.” This preoccupation with the inner-working of ‘suspicious bodies’ incites a policing of affective and psychic dispositions that aims at minimising the risk of ‘improper intimate investments’.


The state is very much concerned about what the effects of ‘travelling threats’ will be and whether the advent of ‘new risky populations’ will affect leefbaarheid (liveability) negatively. ‘Temporary measures’ (such as, “contact bans, cooperation with relocation, et cetera to prevent further radicalisation of the returnee, to prevent him from spreading his radical ideas and to prevent recruitment”) should be read as attempts ‘to curb the circulation of hate’ by limiting the affective capacities of ‘Jihadis’—not only in terms of what they should feel but also in terms of how they are supposed to affect their surroundings.

Anxieties about the effects of ‘Jihadgangers’ and ‘mobile banditism’ on the ‘liveability’ in neighbourhoods has led to a preoccupation with future ‘dangers’ and ‘risks’, that calls for planning in advance, and the restructuring of public space. An active policy of spatial distribution is already being pursued through the ‘Rotterdam Law’. Municipalities are allowed to steer prospective renters away from certain neighbourhoods, if “the quality of life is under pressure,” for extended periods, based on their income. And the recently proposed measures will only intensify an already restrictive situation.

In order to safeguard ‘liveability’, the Dutch government has developed a policy of containment, which seeks, through ever more invasive techniques of control, to isolate ‘radical elements’. The rhetorical coupling of radicalism (extremism) and Ebola under the sign of ‘threats to national security’, as well as recent statements by the Dutch Intelligence Service and politicians, work together to produce a culture of dread and a state of unpredictable ‘contagious’ terror.

Rob Bertholee, director of AIVD (The General Intelligence and Security Service), said in a recent statement,

“There is now much more information and it is being disseminated much faster, also through social media. If you can infect a lot of people with your ideas, then the probability that a person will commit an attack is many times greater.”

And the AIVD write in 2004 report that,

The participants of the chat sessions ‘infect’ themselves increasingly with radical Islamic ideology.”

In a recent statement the AIVD asserts that,

“The radicalisation of Muslims in our country poses an insidious (sluipende) threat. In that they will no longer recognize Dutch laws and regulations and force others to no longer respect democracy and the authority of the government. The intimidation of people who have an opposing voice is, therefore, cause for serious concern.”

Much of the anxiety over ‘radicalisation’ is conveyed through a rhetoric of infection and inundation. The Dutch verb sluipen means to move cautiously so as to avoid detection, and it is most often used in combination with disease (sluipende ziekte). The ‘radicalisation of Muslims’ is narrated as a disease that causes alienation from the democratic state of law. As such, the ‘radicalised Muslim’ is viewed, both metaphorically as well as physically, as a dangerous organism that hides within the borders of the nation, exploiting the ‘openness’ of its unsuspecting host while it spreads its poison. The state is, then, called upon to administer the ‘right’ social and psycho-medical remedies—be it the isolation or expulsion of the ‘radicalised Muslim’.


The proximity between pathogen, and the racialised, ‘dysfunctional’ subject bring the biopolitics of ‘security’ into relief, and speak to deeper concerns regarding the body politic and its vitality and resilience. The government’s concern with the dangers of ‘affective infection’ stems from its drive “to produce the citizen best suited to fulfil [its] policies.” The proper citizen is imagined as someone who ‘just acts normal’, respects the rule of law, is committed to democracy and the protection of neoliberal notions of freedom, and is not influenced by any negative feelings towards the state. These standardized expectations are “not so much as a definition of legitimate behavior but as a delimitation of available behavior options.”

The available forms of attachment are limited so that behaviour can be predicted to some extent. Any behaviour or attachment that deviates from the set expectations could potentially undermine political stability and, as such, be a threat to the national order. Such a system of governance strongly favours predictable and relatively risk-free repetition. Policies of incapacitation are, then, designed to remove anyone who is believed to pose a ‘threat’—whether physically or ideologically—to Dutch security and political stability from society indefinitely. The mayor of Rotterdam Aboutaleb and alderman Eerdmans mince no words in a recent statement:

“If you consciously choose to become a threat to peace in the world, then you deserve to be maximally isolated.”

They further argue that,

“With the right interventions we will put radicalising young people back on the right track, or isolate them so they do not affect others.”

In this case, the ‘we’ constitutes “an extensive network of religious institutions, schools, neighbourhood police officers, and healthcare providers,” which is called upon to carefully monitor the moves and attitudes of ‘radicalising young people’. Formulations such as “right interventions,” which echo military, as well as therapeutic, language, and “the right track” betray not only a profound preoccupation with propriety, as I have illustrated above, but also with a regulated spatial and psychological designation (‘follow in somebody’s footsteps’).

The ‘right track’ is significant in that it facilitates political stability—or rather a predictable “pattern of the flow of political exchanges.” The ‘right track’ suggests linear movement towards a desired, ‘wholesome’ destination (normalcy), and an ordered system. However, bodies that are subjected to a constant re-reading cannot accomplish movement in ‘straight’ (or linear) time. ‘Security’ itself is about slowing down ‘suspicious’ bodies through ‘random’ stop-and-searches, so that speed and efficiency and ‘free movement’ become linked to transparent—read: ‘White’—bodies.

State practices of security, such as racial profiling and reference index at-risk youth, work in concert to produce the image of the ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’ individual through a deadly logic of inclusion and exclusion, which animates the desire to contain and neutralize ‘suspicious’ bodies. The politics of security permits “specific groups to be blamed, even before they have done anything, simply by categorizing them, anticipating profiles of risk from previous trends, and projecting them by generalization upon the potential behaviour of each individual pertaining to the risk category.”

And those singled out as ‘risky’ populations in need of control, and thus subject to containment and/or removal, speak to sharp convergences of White patriarchal power, racism, ableism, militarism, and classism. Simone Browne asserts that,

“claims to ‘legitimate’ or normative citizenship are understood through the ‘bordering’ of those depicted as potential threat to these citizenship claims and the rights to mobility and stability that come with them.”

It is through the policing of Black bodies and non-Black bodies of colour that contingent ‘border zones’ are created. As such, we should think of borders as “dynamic processes that are contingently expressed through everyday activities,” that regulate, and channel mobilities. And Black bodies and non-Black bodies of colour serve as persistent reminders as to the permeability of the border; we are always subject to removal and/or retention. It is very important to place racial terror at the centre of any analysis on security and mobility regimes.


What appears to be taking place beneath the surface of the political discussions on ‘Jihadism’ and, to a far lesser extent, ‘mobile banditism’ is a convergence of affect and technologies. What’s more, the distinction between internal and external security of the Netherlands is becoming more and more irrelevant—as the speech attests. Due to ‘our openness’, ‘threats’ could come from almost anywhere.

And it is precisely through the intensification of ‘threats’ that the nation ‘surfaces’ as a felt collective—that is, a proper citizenry that experiences affective alignment. The figure of the “affect alien,” whose feelings are ‘out of place’ within an affective community, serves as a ‘dangerous’ contrast to the proper citizen. Affective misalignment becomes, then, not only a source of ‘suspicion’, but a ‘threat’ to ‘the nation’ and political stability. Contamination and ‘infection’ is articulated in terms of unwanted migration of people, ideas, and affects. Protection is, after all, prevention.

Under the rubric of ‘prevention’, invasive security measures have become ways of “ordering the full range of social relations, activities, and places.” Risk classifications, the obligation of identification, intuitive policing, police harassment, and invasive racial profiling are preventive weapons in the arsenal of the state machinery of ‘security’. As Simone Browne notes, “identity documents [serve] as a key technology in the management of mobility.” So, our level of mobility says something about our position in relation to the state. State practices of security build on an archive of anti-black technologies of surveillance and migration control that are meant to secure the ‘health’ or vitality of the nation. Anti-blackness still animates the security-industrial complex. However, “anti-Blackness as a logic of social organization” is conspicuously absent from current discussions on surveillance.

The primary function of borders has never been to keep people out; borders are there to regulate and limit movement. The main aim of the government is to create a well nigh ‘transparent’ population whose activities are easily identifiable and effortlessly observed.

Check out Simone Browne’s talk Dark Sousveillance Race, Surveillance and Resistance

[1] Mobility refers to “the actual and potential movement and flows of people, goods, ideas, images and information from place to place, entangled in networks and in tensions between fixity and motion, territorialisation and de-territorialisation and over which (im)mobility for whom and when.” (see Anne Jansen Mobility, Space and Power)


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