Dubai’s new iris scanners in lieu of passports raise privacy concerns

written by Hannah Dowling | March 9, 2021
A file image of Emirates’ aircraft at Dubai Airport (Airlinerwatch)

The world’s busiest international passenger airport, Dubai International Airport, has begun using iris scanners as a contact-free method of identity verification on all passengers, according to a report by the Associated Press.

While the airport has been testing such biometric technology as a means of passenger identification for many months, the program has been hurried into full deployment by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The iris scanner reportedly eliminates the need for any human interaction when entering or leaving the country.

It also eradicates the need for any physical papers or cards, essentially replacing both passports and boarding passes, according to Dubai authorities.

The iris scanner also reduces the need for passengers to touch potentially contaminated surfaces, as is the case with other AI-driven immigration technologies, such as the automated gates used in many countries worldwide.

Additionally, iris-scanning is largely considered to be more accurate than other facial-recognition technologies, and can be completed in a matter of seconds.

“The future is coming,” said Major General Obaid Mehayer Bin Suroor, deputy director of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs. “Now, all the procedures have become ‘smart’, around five to six seconds.”

However, the technology relies upon the transmission of stored information between Dubai-based long-haul carrier Emirates and Dubai immigration authorities, which, in combination with the growing trend of biometric data collection, has raised privacy concerns.

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According to the AP, Emirate’s biometric privacy statement that the airline links passenger’s faces with other personally identifying data, including their passport and flight information.

It also stated that the airline will retain such information for “as long as it is reasonably necessary for the purposes for which it was collected”, with no clarification as to how long this may actually be.

The airline otherwise offered little in the way of details regarding how the data would be used and stored, though did note that some personal data “can be processed in other Emirates’ systems”.

Meanwhile, Dubai’s immigration office stated that it “completely protects” passengers’ personal data so that “no third party can see it”.

Despite these reassurances, experts are still wary of the potential misuse of biometric data, particularly in Dubai, which is known for excessive surveillance, particularly due to the limited information available on how such data will be utilised.

“Any kind of surveillance technology raises red flags, regardless of what kind of 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 the surveillance technology is used transparently, at least there’s an opportunity to have a public conversation about it.”

2 Comments

  • Ani Hart

    says:

    Can the iris of the eye be changed by the use of coloured contact lenses…? Can this computer give a true recognition of the iris if a person is using them…?

  • Peter

    says:

    Not teck savvy re this tech. Does that mean I will have to register in Australia. Will my p/port be invalid. What of countries that do not /will not have it. Pls somebody enlighten me. Ok for new borns who could and prob will be coded as per sci-fi.

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