DUBAI, UAE () – Dubai Airport, the busiest international travel in the world, can already feel surreal with its cavernous duty-free shops, artificial palm trees, shiny terminals, water cascades and near-Arctic air conditioning.
The key east-west transit hub is now introducing another science fiction addition – the iris scanner, which verifies human identity and eliminates the need for any human interaction when entering or leaving the country.
This is the latest artificial intelligence program launched by the United Arab Emirates amid a growing pandemic of coronavirus contactless technologies, which the government is pushing for to help stop the spread of the virus. However, efforts have also renewed issues of mass surveillance in a federation of seven sheikhs, which experts believe are among the highest per capita surveillance cameras in the world.
Dubai Airport began offering the program to all passengers last month. On Sunday, the passengers approached the iris scanner after check-in, looked at it well and passed the passport control within a few seconds. Gone were the days for tickets or impractical phone ps.
In recent years, airports around the world have accelerated the use of time-saving facial recognition technology to transfer passengers to their flights. However, Dubai’s iris scanning is improving with more common automatic gates that appear elsewhere, authorities said, linking iris data to face recognition databases in the country, so passengers do not need any identification documents or boarding passes. The unusual partnership between the long-distance carrier Emirates, which owns the Dubai State Property Fund, and the Dubai Immigration Authority integrates data and transports passengers from check-in to boarding in a single turn, they added.
“The future is near,” said Major General Obaid Mehayer Bin Suroor, Deputy Director-General for Residence and Foreign Affairs. “Now all the procedures have become ‘smart’, about five to six seconds.”
But like all facial recognition technologies, the program contributes to fears of a loss of privacy in a country facing international criticism for targeting journalists and human rights activists.
According to Emirates’ biometric privacy statement, the airline associates the faces of passengers with other personally identifiable information, including passports and flight information, and retains them “for as long as is reasonably necessary for the purposes for which they were collected.” details of how the data will be used and stored, except that while the company did not make copies of passengers ‘faces, other personal data “may be processed in other Emirates’ systems”.
Bin Suroor stressed that the Dubai Immigration Authority “fully protects” passengers’ personal data so that “no one can see it”.
But without further information on how the data will be used or stored, biometric technology increases the possibility of misuse, experts say.
“Any kind of surveillance technology raises red flags, no matter what country it’s in,” said Jonathan Frankle, a doctoral student in artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But in a democratic country, if surveillance technology is used transparently, there is at least an opportunity to have a public debate about it.”
Iris scanning, which requires people to look at the camera as if offering a fingerprint, has become widespread worldwide in recent years as questions have arisen about the accuracy of facial recognition technology. Iris biometrics are considered more reliable than security cameras that scan people’s faces remotely without their knowledge or consent.
Despite fears of over-zealous surveillance in the United Arab Emirates, the country’s extensive facial recognition network shows only signs of its spread. Last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as ruler of Dubai, announced that the country would launch experiments with new facial recognition technology to curb work in “some private sector services” without specifying it.
During the pandemic, the city of Dubai with skyscrapers developed a number of technological tools to fight the virus in shopping malls and on the streets, including disinfectant fogs, thermal cameras and facial scans that check masks and measure temperatures. Similarly, the programs use cameras that can record and record people’s data, potentially transferring information to the city’s wider biometric databases.