A government agency in the United Arab Emirates has co-opted the incumbent operator, Etisalat, to embed UAE identity cards into mobile devices. Now Big Brother will know who you are, where you are, how long you have been there, who you have contacted on your handset and what web sites you have attempted to access. Martyn Warwick reports.
The Emirates Identity Authority has agreed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the national telco (although it is by now means clear what choice, if any, Etisalat had when signing on the dotted line) whereby both parties will jointly conduct a feasibility study, lasting several months, to test the implementation the UAE's existing ID card regime as an NFC (Near Field Communication) app embedded on a handset.
The UAE has had a hugely detailed and complex ID system in place since 2004. It is based on exactly the same kind of microprocessor chip that comes packed on to a credit card. It stores encrypted data including the subject's name, date of birth, sex, mug shot, fingerprints of every finger and both thumbs (and for all I know, footprints, hat size and inside-leg measurement as well).
The ID card also includes a retina scan, facial scan and facial recgonition software, palmprints (human rather than arboreal) and even scans of the sides of the hands, just in case anyone goes in for a bit of king-fu fighting.
Finally there is an embedded and, supposedly, highly secure 15-digit key permitting access to the UAE's all-encompassing Population Register.
The card comes with the necessary NFC radio capabilities to transmit the information encoded on it to a reader and as carrying the ID card at all times is already mandatory in the UAE, it won't be long before it will be illegal to go out without either having the card about your person or a mobile device stashed somewhere in a kundura or abaya (respectively the ubiquitous ankle-length white tunic worn by men and the shapeless black over-garment worn by women) to be produced on demand to a member of law enforcement agencies.
If the feasibility study is successful (and it will be) the first phase of the scheme will be to roll it out to smartphones of Emirati citizens. The second phase would see the app embedded on the mobile devices of all ex-pat gastarbeiter.
Rationalising what will be an unprecedented intrusion into personal privacy and liberty, a spokesman for the Emirates Identity authority said, “NFC can assist in providing creative, convenient and safe services for customers, while presenting new opportunities for data integration and communication. Our partnership with Etisalat continues our efforts to provide the most modern communication infrastructure for Emirates ID cardholders, who can benefit from the connectivity and compatibility of their smart cards.” The spokesperson omits to mention that the system will also be a powerful instrument of surveillance and social control.
Etisalat has previous form in voluntarily working in close collaboration with the UAE government and its security agencies - or for repeated craven capitulation to any request made to it by the powers-that-be, no matter how outrageous or undemocratic. It depends on your point of view.
In that regard it's probably worth remembering that in 2009 Etisalat sent out a "network upgrade patch" to all its BlackBerry users that was, in fact, spyware designed to keep close tabs on users of the devices. The UAE's security agencies were miffed because RIM's IM encryption was so good that the spooks couldn't crack it.
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