I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Privacy

I‘m going to describe a thing. I’m going to work from the bottom up. You’re going to visualise it, because I’m not going to show it.

I’m looking at a piece of heavy white card paper, about 25 centimetres square. It’s been in an envelope for well over forty years, so it looks almost new. Below a deep fold crease in the middle are two rows of five boxes, and then, one row of two boxes. Each box contains a small child’s single fingerprint. Right thumb, right index, right middle, right ring, right little; then repeated with the left; then the left hand simultaneously, repeated with the right. The fingerprints are clear and black.

Above the fingerprints are some form fields printed in a clean lithograph, using fonts we don’t often see anymore. Those fields contain, in handwriting, the child’s name, gender, date of birth, and school. I know the handwriting well. I miss it.

Above those fields are lines that say what the document is:

Police Department, [Jurisdiction]
Voluntary Fingerprint Program

The fingerprints, of course, are mine. The handwriting, of course, is my mother’s.

Let me tell you this: if you think we are living in an era of moral panic over stranger danger, hoo boy, did you miss the 80s. Boomer parents had that shit down. Mine was the cohort that wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating because one lunatic somewhere put razors in the candy. Mine was the cohort that wasn’t allowed to walk to friends’ houses because there might be a Bad Person hiding behind a shrub. Mine was the cohort that wasn’t allowed to do sleepovers because someone’s dad was probably a perv. Mine was the cohort who were sat down, solemnly, in front of Very Special Episodes. Mine was the cohort who were made to memorise the faces of other children on milk cartons. And me, mine was the family who told me that I should never put my handbag below my seat in the cinema because there were always small Black boys crawling under the seats to steal handbags. Yes, they said that. They were serious.

In short, we were raised in an atmosphere of total paranoia about something, bad, someone, somewhere, out there, coming right for us. And then they wondered why I ended up skiving off high school and going to CBGBs, oh yes that is a thing I did and I regret NOTHING.

And so it’s no surprise that mine was the cohort whose parents willingly had us fingerprinted, by the police, when we were barely toilet trained, just in case something happened to us. It was a thing! A voluntary thing!

I mean, it certainly gives me a conversation piece to frame on the home office wall forty-(cough) years later. Trust me when I say that if you saw this card, you’d assume it was a souvenir of an arrest. You’d assume I’d been fingerprinted because I’d done something wrong, and I don’t mean wrong as in how exactly I got into CBGBs underage.

So I think you know where I’m going with this.

The fingerprints, in the minds of the parents who participated in the voluntary fingerprinting program, were to keep us safe. Who would keep us safe? Why, the police, of course. Why wouldn’t they?

And our fingerprints were to find the Bad People (who were hiding behind shrubs or crawling under cinema seats etc) who would do bad things to us. Other people were bad! We would never grow up to be bad, or considered bad, so our fingerprints would only be fingers pointing to someone else. Why wouldn’t they be?

And the fingerprint card that went into an envelope and was forgotten about, long after the parents were ashes and dust, becomes a conversation piece, but was it alone? Was there a xerox copy, a photostat, filed away with the police? Where is it now? What’s it doing? With my biometrics?

That card, the one I’m looking at, is a souvenir of so many things. It’s a souvenir of life with suburban Boomer parents, who lived in a world where white was white and so were they, and black was Black and crawling under your seat to steal your purse, and the police were always on your side, and your children would always be the rescued victims and never the persecuted ones, or worse.

It’s a souvenir of the fact that I happily stuck my fingers in an ink pad and put my prints on the paper, at a young age, because I’d already been filled with stories about Bad People coming to get me.

It’s a souvenir of how so much of safety – child or adult – is smoke and mirrors and theatre to make people feel better. Had a Bad Person actually got me, all ten of my fingerprints, both of my footprints, and legions of my boogers would have been retrievable from my toy box in minutes.

It’s a souvenir of the fact that parenting is hard work that involves hard tradeoffs, and I know the parent who wrote my name on the card would have had me fingerprinted out of unconditional love, even if that love was rather distorted by suburban prejudices she never lived long enough to question.

But that card I’m looking at it is not just a souvenir to me. I’ve put it up on my home office wall because to me, it has something to say about today. (Hey, when you’re a policy person, everything is policy.)

We’re all dealing with the debate on how to keep children safe from predators, online and off. That debate involves a lot of suggestions, some of which have made their way into policy, which advocate for some frankly shocking violations of children’s privacy. Some of those suggestions involve constant digital surveillance. Some of those suggestions involve curtailments of their personal freedoms. Through those mistakes, many of those suggestions risk causing more real psychological damage to children than the imagined potential damage they seek to safeguard against. I know of what I speak, here.

And I know those ideas do that because, as I’ve noted: those ideas always seem to come from the comfortable white middle classes. The ones who contact the police when things go wrong. Why wouldn’t they? The ones who see no issue with allowing third parties to monitor their children. Why wouldn’t they? The ones who would happily hand over their children’s data to anyone who’d have it in exchange for peace of mind. Why wouldn’t they?

I understand those attitudes. Been there, done that, got…fingerprinted.

But I’m very far away from that world now, in every sense. I’m a far better and, shall I say, more cognitively intact person for that. In order to get there, I had to do a lot of work, over many decades, to shake off the prejudices and biases that I was raised with. That included my view of myself, and my place in the world, as much as it included my view of others. And it included understanding how things I was raised with, as a given, just don’t work that way, in the real world, for everyone. That understanding shapes everything I do.

That’s why I can look at my tiny little fingerprints and feel a little bit emotional and a whole lot inspired, although perhaps not in the way that anyone who was involved in that card might have intended.

I can only hope, {cough} as a mother, that those involved on all sides of the children’s privacy debate take some time to recognise their own prejudices and biases too, and understand that the world they and their own children live in is not the world their policy solutions will be implemented in.

Far from it.

As I hung it up on the wall, I noticed that there was another field next to my mother’s handwriting. It was empty. She must have assumed it was a given, and skipped it.

What can I say. I wouldn’t.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.