x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

One identity card, multiple uses

The new ID card that Emiratis and expatriate professionals have been told to get by the end of the year could offer more convenience by also serving as a health, labour and even debit card. But is it safe to carry so much information on one piece of plastic?

Abu Dhabi - October 22, 2008: Abdullsattar Aldloushi holds his UAE ID card in Abu Dhabi October 22, 2008. (Jeff Topping/The National)
Abu Dhabi - October 22, 2008: Abdullsattar Aldloushi holds his UAE ID card in Abu Dhabi October 22, 2008. (Jeff Topping/The National)

ABU DHABI // Imagine substituting the entire contents of your bulging wallet for a single, convenient card. Under Government plans to introduce a new national identity card, for Emiratis and expatriates alike, driving licences, health, labour and even debit cards could disappear, to be replaced by a single piece of plastic. That might make the national ID card rather convenient, but talks are also under way with banks to allow people to load money on to them and use them as debit cards.

In the wake of the banking fraud that in recent weeks has obliged most customers to change their PIN numbers, as well as concerns about the safety of personal information, many will be worried about security. On Tuesday, the Government took many by surprise when it announced that not only Emiratis but also professional expatriates had only two months in which to obtain a national ID card or lose access to health care and other government-related services.

Although nationals have been able to register since January, and 635,000 out of 835,000 have done so, expatriates had been told previously that they had two years to register. The Government says that, in addition to helping it to maintain more comprehensive records on foreign residents and Emirati nationals, the scheme is also designed to protect against identity theft. Some experts, however, believe a national identity card scheme could have the opposite effect and make sensitive information more vulnerable to theft.

There is also the question of whether the scheme can possibly be introduced within the new, dramatically reduced time frame. Thamer Rashed al Qasemi, planning director for the Emirates Identity Authority (EIDA), which is responsible for the scheme, insisted yesterday that the estimated 400,000 professional expatriates living in the UAE could be processed by the end of the year. In addition to the 28 registration centres set up around the country, the Government is also sending mobile units to workplaces and other locations.

"Once you are in front of an operator," said Mr Qasemi, "it takes just 14 minutes." Nevertheless, it is a tall order. Including the 200,000 Emiratis the Government says remain to be registered, a total of up to 600,000 people now have to be processed. With only 48 working days left before the end of the year (excluding holidays) 12,500 individuals must be processed every day between now and Dec 31.

Yesterday the programme got off to a discouraging start when the EIDA website - www.emiratesid.ae - which applicants are advised to visit for details of where and how to register, crashed. Many expatriate residents were unaware yesterday that they have only until Dec 31 to register for the new national identity card. A straw poll conducted by The National at Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall found most westerners did not even know about the new ID cards.

"This is the first I've heard about an ID card scheme," said Simon Baldwin, 22, a British surveyor working for Fugro Geoconsulting. "My line of work means that I'm in and out of the country a lot, so I hope that my company can take care of this for me." Almost all residents, however, were in favour of the new ID cards which, in addition to biometric information from face and fingerprint scans, will carry personal information, including passport and driving licence details, address, residency status and qualifications. Many said they were fed up with having to carry so many different forms of identification.

"I think the cards are a good idea," said Husain Al Marzouqi, an Emirati and public relations supervisor for Das Holding, who received his ID card three months ago. "I used to have many cards, now my wallet feels much lighter." Mr Qasemi, a software engineer, said the ID-card technology being used was already in use within the French health industry and had proved itself to be reliable. Under the scheme, a "smart card" system would ensure that only approved people would be able to access the card either to read, write on it or update it. Despite the recent breaches in security within the financial sector, banking experts also say they believe the technology will be secure. Ahmed al Naqbi, senior manager of channels and electronics at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, said that while some of the banking security systems were five, 10 or even 20 years old, this was a "new system which will have the most up to date security systems in place", which should ensure that it is not easy to hack into. Others, however, are less convinced. Dr Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, a British-based surveillance watchdog, and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, has been studying plans to introduce a similar system in Britain and doubts the UAE's system will be as secure as its proponents would like to believe. The Government, he warned, would be "taking all the jewels of the information economy, that is people's personal information, and putting it all into one place with a big sign outside the door that advertises 'People's information available here'". "Why would a criminal ever bother with going after a bank when instead they can hit the central system run by the Government that is highly unlikely to be secured adequately. "Of course the Government may say that the system will be secured, but as we've seen in the UK, where they have lost files on just about every member of the population, this is impossible." John Daugman, an academic at The Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University and a former member of the Biometrics Assurance Group, which reviewed plans for a similar British scheme, said the technology chosen by the UAE and Britain alike would cause problems for the system here. Fingerprints and facial photos, he said, were not sufficiently distinctive for telling apart a population of five million people; iris recognition would have been far more effective. "The UAE has been a leading innovator and groundbreaker in the deployment of biometrics in national programmes such as its iris-based border security system," he said. "This has been deployed since 2001 and is now used at all 32 air, land and sea ports of entry into the UAE. Every day, some 12 billion iris comparisons are performed in this exhaustive mode of biometric database checking." Face and fingerprint biometrics, he said, were far too weak to check for any multiple or duplicate identities. He believes the "weaker biometrics" were chosen because the International Civil Aviation Organisation has specified them for machine-readable travel documents "and there is pressure for all countries to use what is standard and more familiar". kattwood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Jessica Au