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At Dubai Airport, travelers’ eyes become their passports

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Dubai Airport, one of the busiest in the world for international travel, can already feel surreal with its duty-free shops, artificial palm trees, glittering terminals and water cascades.

Now, the East-West Key Transit Center is spreading a science fiction supplement, the iris, which verifies one’s identity, eliminates the need for any human interaction as one enters or leaves the country.

It is the latest UAE artificial intelligence program to launch a growing coronavirus outbreak technology that the government is promoting to help prevent the spread of the virus. But the effort also raises new questions about mass surveillance in the Federation of Seven Sheikhs, which experts say is the highest concentration of surveillance cameras per capita in the world.

Dubai Airport started offering a program to all passengers last month. On Sunday, after registering, the travelers went up to the apricot scanner, gave it a good look, and passed through the passport control within seconds. Gone are the days of paper tickets or unauthorized phone apps.

In recent years, the world’s airports have accelerated the use of cost-effective face recognition technology to transport passengers on their flights. But Dubai’s iridescence upgrades improve the more common automated gates seen elsewhere, authorities say, by attaching iridescent data to the country’s face recognition databases, so the pilot does not need identification documents or a climbing passport. The extraordinary partnership between Emirates, a long-term carrier owned by the Dubai Sovereign Wealth Fund, and the Dubai Immigration Bureau, combines data to transport and escort passengers with one escort, they added.

“The future is near,” said Major General Obaid Mehayer Bin Surur, the deputy director general for foreign affairs at the residence. “Now all the procedures have become ‘smart’, about five or six seconds.”

But like all facial recognition technologies, the program increases fears of secrecy in the country, which have been criticized internationally for targeting journalists and human rights activists.

According to Emirates, the airline links the passengers’ faces to other personally identifiable information, including passport and flight information, keeping it “for as long as necessary for the purposes for which it was collected”. The agreement provided some details on how the data would be used and stored, except that although the company did not make copies of the passengers’ faces, other personal data “could be processed in other UAE systems”.

Bin Surur stressed that the Dubai Immigration Office “completely protects” the personal data of passengers so that “no third party can see it.”

But without additional information on how data will be used or stored, biometric technology increases the likelihood of abuse, experts say.

“Any type of surveillance technology raises red flags, no matter what country it is in,” said Jon Onathan Frankl, a doctoral student in artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But in a democracy, if the technology of control is used transparently, at least there is an opportunity to have a public conversation about it.”

Iris scanning, which requires people to look at the camera as if they were offering a fingerprint, has become widespread around the world in recent years as questions arose about the accuracy of facial recognition technology. Iris biometrics are considered more reliable than surveillance cameras that remotely scan people’s faces without their knowledge or consent.

Despite concerns over oversight in the UAE, the country’s vast network of facial recognition shows only signs of expansion. Last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who was also the governor of Dubai, announced that the country would begin testing new facial recognition technology to reduce paperwork in “some private sector services” without elaborating.

During the epidemic, the skyscraper city of Dubai developed a number of technological tools in shopping malls և to fight the virus on the streets, including disinfecting fogs, thermal cameras և face examinations to check masks և temperature. The programs also use cameras that can record and upload people’s data, feeding possible information into the wider city-state biometric databases.


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