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Take What is Offered: Biometric Authentication in Altered Carbon

What happens when technology reaches the level where it can grant humans immortality? Richard K Morgan’s epic 2002 novel, and current Netflix show, Altered Carbon explores this question, and in the process reveals an unsettling answer about owning your own identity.

We are thrown into an unfamiliar world of flying cars, neon skyscrapers, and eerily humanistic AI robots. Immortality is possible thanks to “stacks” – a coded metal disc inserted into your spine that houses your consciousness and can be transferred from body to body (a process called re-sleeving). Amidst this technologically advanced world, a mystery unfolds that seems all too familiar and includes class struggle, racial and religious divides, abuses of technology by powerful people, etc.

We follow along with a diverse cast of characters – namely former elite soldier Takeshi Kovacs, police officer Kristen Ortega, and AI hotel landlord Poe (a nod to Edgar Allan Poe of course).

While there is a lot to unpack in this story, I found the use of biometric authentication most interesting (is anyone surprised?). It seems like almost all Sci-Fi stories these days have some form of biometric authentication sequence, but in Altered Carbon, biometrics are surprisingly central to the plot.

Biometrics in Altered Carbon

If you lived in this cyberpunk future, you would use biometrics to authenticate payments, get into your office, get into your apartment, unlock your car, etc. You’d use a mix of face scanners and fingerprint scanners. Technology hasn’t seemed to advance far enough to start using touchless scanning yet, but c’est la vie.

What really stuck in my mind is that in order to live forever, you need to discard one body and put your stack (your consciousness) into another body – aka re-sleeving. But, if you re-sleeve, you would lose your original body and your original biometrics. And, to make it even more complicated, someone else could be walking around with your old body while you are in a new one – they recycle bodies in this future! Who keeps track of what person is in what sleeve so that all your accounts still work and aren’t still tied to an old body? If I was put into a new body, I sure would want to make sure I could still get into my apartment and access my bank accounts…Identity fraud must be a nightmare.

This got me thinking – perhaps the governing body that oversees stacks and sleeve reassignment just updates all the accounts. Maybe the government has a database of all the biometrics of all the sleeves, and when your stack is put into a new one, they can just reassign and overwrite. There are governments today that do this kind of biometric cataloging – just look at India and the Aadhaar system.

But in this case, who really owns your identity and your biometrics? It won’t be you. In the case of the show, it would be the government. Only the rich and powerful have a choice of new sleeves, others are given whatever the government has available. Average people wouldn’t have access to their virtual OR physical identity anymore, it would all be dictated by the state. This, sadly, does seem eerily similar to the way third parties store and control our identity data today – for example, Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica hack – but at least, in this case, it’s all virtual identity data, not your biometrics.

In the future, if we change bodies like we change clothes, it will be interesting to see who will end up controlling our virtual and physical identities – and how much control we would be forced to give up to live forever.

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