The sky should be ambivalent. Fog, maybe, or that rainy green from the pre-suck Matrix. But driving across the bridge on a clear, bright Friday afternoon, the view is fantastic. And traffic is minimal the whole way to the airport, so there’s no looming anxiety about being late. This could be the start of a beautiful vacation. Except I’m not catching a plane, I’m on a creepy mission to meet a security agent. Our airport was an early adopter of iris scanners, the sort of machine that inspires nightmares and screenplays. To look into the future of the surveillance state, I’m getting my eyes scanned.
Halifax International was the country’s second airport to offer the CANPASS Air program to passengers (Vancouver was first; seven in total are using it now). Frequent fliers can sign up for CANPASS, submit to a digital photo session then, when returning to Canada from abroad, skip the regular line-up at customs by heading for a biometric reader. “Border clearance in the blink of an eye” is how the CANPASS pamphlet puts it, selling the convenience factor. More interested in the the-world-is-fucked factor, I sent off my application and a non-refundable $50 for processing. A few weeks later, a Canada Border Services Agency officer summoned me to the airport to complete my enrolment.
The officer turns out to have kind eyes and a slight frame that makes her uniform look a bit too big. On the fake-marble countertop next to her workstation is the actual iris scanning device. A matte grey tower with external speakers, it looks like a serious gamer’s computer. There’s a tiltable mirror device mounted in place of the CD slot—it’s the digital camera—and the officer tells me to stand in front of it. CANPASS needs four pictures of each iris, and we start with the left eye. A female voice comes from the speakers. “Please look into the mirror.” I don’t have to take my glasses off, and there are no lights or flashes. When the camera successfully captures an image of my iris, the computer plays that quaint sound of the shutter clicking on a film camera. The voice says “image one of four” and the process repeats.
The officer’s phone rings a lot, and she takes a call while my left eye is being scanned. After the computer says “image four of four” I step back and look at the officer. Still listening to her call, she mouths “right eye” and I plunge my face into the computer’s business. The voice asks me to back up, then talks through the four pictures, thanking me when it’s done.
Less than two minutes of scanning, and I’m free. Free to breeze through customs without even pulling my passport out of my bag. Free to use the crew-only line if the scanner is broken. I am also free not to care when they start talking about using scanners on trains and public buses. If I’m registered and approved to ride the bus, why would I question the myth that more security makes us safer?
Iris scanners are in limited use right now, so they offer little freedom next to more common technology. Devices like cellphones and bank cards are well versed at swapping convenience for personal privacy, quietly taking real freedom and replacing it with a sense of being “free.” It’s easy not to notice this transaction. I saw it briefly looking into the scanner, but walking out of the airport it’s already fading.
Driving back, the MACPASS in the car connects to sensors on the bridge, and the tollgate smoothly rises. I make a quick call to work, then use debit—lunch to go from Bob and Lori’s—before arriving at my desk. Between bites of fishcakes, I send a couple emails from the office. Whoever’s watching the electronic trails can tell I’ve returned to my routine, safe and sound. And a little less free.
Exercise your freedom to type: firstname.lastname@example.org