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Bioethics 007

By Michael Cook

WikiLeaks has exposed US government directives for the collection of biometric information on foreign diplomats, raising important bioethical issues.

As improbable as it sounds, a bioethics angle to the activities of the US State Department has come to light in the WikiLeaks cables. The controversial website has published tens of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables, and some of them have revealed that US diplomats were instructed to collect biometric identification on foreign diplomats.

A missive from the office of the Secretary of State in April 2009 ordered that diplomats in Africa increase their assistance to US intelligence. In addition to the routine diplomatic function of collecting basic biographical information on the people they speak to, diplomats were also supposed to collect “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans”.

Clear directions on how to collect the unique identifiers of “key civilian and military officials” were not listed. No need, if they had watched Get Smart as youngsters. Just imagine Agent 99 and Max swanning about at the Jordanian Ambassador’s cocktail party secretly hoovering dandruff from lapels, flicking cigarette butts up their sleeves, and stuffing half-empty glasses in their pockets.

Such antics are no longer absurd. In recent years, the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq constructed storehouses of biometric data to identify insurgents using small, portable eye and thumb scanners. This foray into bio-information collection was unknown until it emerged through WikiLeaks.

What about informed consent? Are diplomats of foreign governments signing a form authorising American spies to capture their DNA? Not very likely, is it?

WikiLeaks has provided another case study in what might be called security bioethics. With increasing public concern over terrorism, the United States and other western governments are encroaching upon human dignity in ways that would have been rejected as the tools of totalitarianism a generation ago.

Take full-body airport scanners. A thousand of them will be installed by the end of the year to examine the 628 million passengers who fly into the US every year. They are already being used in airports in Canada, the UK, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Russia. As well as picking up metal objects, these machines reveal intimate body parts of travellers to security officials. The alternative is an even more invasive pat-down, so there is little choice.

Respect for personal intimacy is an important element in human dignity, and therefore of bioethics. In this case the government has weighed up the harms and benefits and has decided, on utilitarian grounds, that diminished human dignity is offset by greater safety in the midst of a global war on terror.

This particular initiative may be sensible, but alarm bells ought to ring whenever governments turn utilitarian and put security ahead of human dignity and human rights. For utilitarians, there are no inherently wrong actions.

Utilitarians regard “human dignity” as a vacuous concept that ought to be discarded from ethical discourse. This is why bioethicists of a utilitarian persuasion, like Peter Singer, see nothing inherently objectionable in euthanasia.

Even torture can be justified. It was a utilitarian turn of mind that persuaded the Bush Administration to authorise waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques at Guantanamo Bay.

There have been a number of prominent academics outside the Bush Administration who defended torture in the aftermath of 9/11. Prof Mirko Bagaric of Deakin University’s Law School caused an international uproar in 2005 when he contended that “torture is permissible where the evidence suggests that this is the only means, due to the immediacy of the situation, to save the life of an innocent person”. If something as abhorrent as torture passes the utilitarian test, airport scanners are bound to sail through.

Hysteria over the war on terror has faded, but it could easily revive with another atrocity. Will utilitarian bioethics be able to resist calls to implement even more impositions on human dignity?

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge (