Concerns Rise over Biometric Surveillance in the Middle East
Biometric surveillance has become a growing concern in the Middle East, as repressive governments increasingly use advanced technology to monitor and control their populations. The recent case of an Emirati dissident being detained in Jordan due to his biometric information highlights the potential for abuse in the region.
Khalaf al-Romaithi, who had previously been sentenced to 15 years in prison in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of a politically motivated trial, was detained in Amman after an iris scan revealed his identity. It remains unclear how the Jordanians obtained al-Romaithi’s biometric data, but there are suspicions that the UAE may have shared the information.
This incident raises concerns about the use of biometric technology in the Middle East and its potential for enabling cooperation between repressive governments. Biometric information encompasses various unique markers that identify individuals, including fingerprints, DNA, palm prints, facial scans, and even behavioral patterns such as walking and breathing.
While biometric verification, which matches an individual’s unique data with pre-supplied information, is widely used for security purposes, it is remote biometric identification (RBI) that worries human rights experts. RBI involves comparing an individual’s biometric features with a large database of others, allowing for mass surveillance and potential abuse.
The Middle East, particularly the wealthier Gulf states, has embraced biometric identification for various purposes, such as immigration control, citizenship registration, and voter registration. Dubai, in particular, has boasted about catching criminals using biometric data, such as identifying a fraudster through the shape of his ears or apprehending a man disguised in women’s clothing based on his gait.
However, the misuse of biometric information is a real concern, especially in the context of weak privacy laws and limited human rights protections. Governments could potentially amass extensive databases of their populations’ biometrics and use them for surveillance purposes. This could have severe consequences, such as identifying individuals’ associations with journalists, political opponents, or dissidents.
Experts argue that stricter regulation is needed to prevent the misuse of biometric information, particularly in authoritarian regimes. The European Union is currently debating the world’s first law on artificial intelligence, which will likely address the use of biometrics. Some researchers suggest a complete ban on remote biometric identification to protect individuals’ privacy and curb the power imbalance between those who surveil and those who are watched.
While biometric technology has its legitimate uses, it also poses significant risks, especially in regions with authoritarian governments. Striking the right balance between security measures and individual rights is crucial to ensure citizens’ privacy and freedom are protected. As technology continues to advance, policymakers and international bodies must address the ethical implications of biometric surveillance and establish robust regulations to safeguard against abuses.