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Dubai airport trials iris scanners for passenger check-in

Dubai Airport, the world's busiest for international travel, is trialing a new iris scanner system to check passengers in for their flights. 

The trial has inevitably raised questions about mass surveillance and whether such moves are leading us down an increasingly treacherous path. 


What's being trialed?

The United Arab Emirates is testing how effective iris scanners are for passport checks, something which the government claims have been implemented in response to Covid-19.

Dubai airport is an important hub for travelers going from east to west and vice versa, so there's perhaps more onus on the state's airport to ready itself for the post-lockdown world. 

The iris scanners eliminate the need for human contact at any point in the check-in process. The trials started last month and have now seen hundreds of people zoom through the airport and onto flights without coming face-to-face with a human. 

How do the scanners work?

The scanners are designed to pair information extracted from your retina with other personally identifiable information in the country's facial recognition database.

This is then linked to your flight and other travel information. In theory, it means that passengers won't even have to bring their passports to the airport to check-in – in fact, they'll need no hard copy of ID at all. 

Privacy concerns

Inevitably, almost any kind of new surveillance technology comes along with fresh privacy concerns. Iris scanners are no different, and there is cause for concern. A line from a section of Emirates airlines' privacy policy covering biometric information reads:

We keep your personal information for as long as is reasonably necessary for the purposes for which it was collected.

Emirates Airlines privacy policy

However, the privacy statement is somewhat vague on how this information will be stored and processed. They have confirmed the company has not made any copies of a citizen's face but also admitted that the data "can be processed in other Emirates' systems."

It was, however, confirmed that Dubai's immigration office does not pass this data on to any third parties. 

UAE: a bad reputation

For the privacy-conscious, it's eery to see facial recognition technology and iris scanners being installed in any country, democratic or non-democratic.

Unfortunately, however, the UAE has a particularly poor track record when it comes to human rights and intruding on the private lives of their citizens. 

But there's next to no public oversight in the UAE; it's a federation of several monarchies, not a country with a system of checks and balances. They also have a well-documented history of spying on activists, journalists, and other citizens that go against the grain. 

The government has also been exposed in the recent past for developing a chat app that turned out to be a spy tool to surveil citizens with. Incidents like these mean it's hard to trust that the data collected at Dubai airport will be protected and used appropriately. 

The main takeaway: watch out for biometrics

Biometrics is a perpetually expanding field that, much like iris scanners, brings with plenty of privacy concerns. 

Not only are there physical biometric markers such as fingerprints and retina scans, but also behavioral biometrics that focus on things like locomotion and how your body moves. 

Researchers have already developed a gait (a person's manner of walking) recognition system which can accurately determine a person's identity 99.3% of the time. 

Although these may have innocent – and even useful – applications, putting this hyper-specific data in the hands of bad faith actors is a major concern. Who knows what pernicious uses it could have? Whether we like it or not, biometrics is now part and parcel of security worldwide and should be watched with careful eyes. 


Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.


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