Branding a human body with UV ink is ethically irresponsible

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Photo Credit: Alfred Zhang

The date was 2011, in the heyday of the Occupy movement which called for an end to social and economic inequality. In a knee-jerk reaction to a protest, police forcibly removed a group of Occupy protesters in Montreal who handcuffed themselves to an outdoor kitchen outside a public square.

Without being charged of any crimes, the protesters were detained, then released shortly after without charge, bearing a number marked on their hands in invisible UV ink, penned without their consent or foreknowledge. This month, the Quebec Court of Appeal concluded — wrongfully, in my opinion — that the rights of these squatters had not been violated.

Beyond being ethically questionable, this method is a dehumanizing yet increasingly familiar experience in the Western world of ubiquitous surveillance and antagonistic police-citizen relations.

I can attest to a human application of this method in history: notably the slave trade in colonial United States, where they branded slaves to signify ownership and control, and more recently the Holocaust, where those in Nazi death camps were similarly branded. This procedural method for future identification has implications of control, highlighted in this very grim history.

While our freedom of liberty and security is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter, unfortunately, marking citizens with invisible ink skirts a loophole in the law. As Quebec court judge Sylvain Coutlée pointed out in the trial, this process neither harms the person, nor explicitly contravenes any legal rights. As a matter of analogy, he compared the process to ‘being stamped’ upon entry to a nightclub; an innocuous process for easier individual identification.

There are obvious holes in his analogy. Contextually, a public square fundamentally differs from a nightclub in that the public space is open for wider citizen benefit, whereas a nightclub is in the business of making money from clients. The nightclub entry-stamp functions to differentiate paying clients from non-paying; in the police procedural, the intent is to differentiate innocent citizens from demonstrators.

Police tag identification stresses power relations between state and citizen, and has covert suggestions of threat as a message.

This method becomes even more ethically questionable when the question of consent enters the discussion. The body is personal property in the strictest sense of personhood. The police have therefore little right to violate this property. As police require a warrant for access to private property, and to administer DNA tests, the non-consensual marking of the protestors indicates a level of distrust and power abuse. Especially so when the purposes are for future identification on charges of suspicion.

Since the ink is clearly visible at the right moments — the moment of inspection by authority — the mark plays part in a dehumanizing process that reduces the person to a possible offender. What makes the mark worse is its durability. According to the news website Salon, one protester stated that the mark would not wear off with extensive rinsing and soap. The mark persists, both physically and mentally.

While I feel these protesters were indeed violated, encouragingly, I have not read testimony of further usage of invisible UV ink. However, as a one-time method introduced in the context of our surveillance society of NSA revelations, radical Occupy movements, and cop-community tensions, this procedural misconduct fits our constantly surveilled time period like a piece of the puzzle.