Made to Measure? The Biases and Boundaries of Biometrics

Lilly Ryan

Data Privacy Ethics Human-Machine-Interaction Internet of Things Privacy

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Devices have been permitted to measure many aspects of our everyday lives, from our browsing habits to our sleeping patterns. Many of us rely on smart watches to remind us to take a break from our desks and to count the number of steps we take in a day. People have even posted screenshots of their heart rates spiking as a record of the moment they were dumped.

With the inclusion of increasingly sensitive hardware in smartphones, watches, and laptops, developers are able to build software that measures and predicts things about their users' bodies, but without a strong grounding in the ways that human measurements have been used and abused in a pre-smartphone era, we risk retreading some of the more sinister paths history has drawn us down.

Lilly Ryan - historian, privacy advocate, and penetration tester - is your tour guide along some of the most misguided of these roads. You'll learn how the biometrics craze of the nineteenth century led to the development of phrenology, a pseudoscience that used the shape of the skull to justify everything from matchmaking to murder. You'll follow the echoes of this thinking through to the more recent past, where the ability to measure a human body in detail initially left the menstrual cycle out entirely and then swung hard the other way, allowing employers to buy access to live feeds of their employees' fertility planning. And you'll hear about the future: of facial recognition systems that cover shopping malls and cities, of the ideas underpinning physical analysis algorithms, and of the ethical frameworks that activists argue for compared to the ones companies adopt.

There's a lot that our bodies can tell us - but we need to learn how to draw out the right stories.

Type: Talk (30 mins); Python level: Beginner; Domain level: Beginner


Lilly Ryan

Lilly Ryan (@attacus_au) is a pen tester, Python wrangler, and recovering historian from Melbourne, Australia. She has haunted many countries with her talks about ethical software, social identities after death, teamwork, and the telegraph. More recently she has researched the domestic use of arsenic in Victorian England, baked gingerbread, chained some vulns, wielded the Oxford comma, and knitted a pair of glitchy socks.