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Into the Eyeballs of Syrian Refugees

Is it really a good idea to scan the irises of thousands of vulnerable people?


Keeping track of the more than two million Syrians who have fled the kaleidoscopic war splintering their homeland is a tremendous challenge for humanitarian agencies. So it's understandable that the United Nations is excited about replacing the old systems of paper identity documents and relief vouchers with a high-tech alternative: iris scans. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has already digitally scanned tens of thousands of refugees' eyeballs to better keep tabs on who's where and who is entitled to what kind of help.

As Scientific American sums up:

The program relies on imaging the unique rings, furrows and freckles of the iris and storing that information in a massive online database.... Instead of receiving food packages, money vouchers or bank cards from UNHCR, refugees in the iris-identification system receive a monthly text message saying money has been placed in their accounts. Then, they walk up to an ATM ... and, rather than insert a card and punch in a pass code, they look into a specially designed iris camera. Once ID’d, a refugee would be able to withdraw his or her monthly allotment of cash.

There are some definite advantages. It's very difficult to lose, or counterfeit, an iris. But the whole system also opens up some disturbing possibilities. As the watchdogs at Privacy International point out: "There are very real risks involved, including the creation of databases filled with the personal data of a vulnerable population. Good intentions aside, failing to protect information of Syrians could have the opposite effect: these communities will be more, not less, at risk." All that data can be hacked into by, for instance, the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-Assad bunch of digital guerrillas who have already caused considerable trouble. And once the war is over, who gets to do what with that database?

Massive biometric databases aren't only a worry in the Middle East. I reported for Wired a while back on the Indian government's campaign to scan the irises of every single one of their 1.2 billion citizens—an effort that is also touted as a means to make social services more efficient, but which also casts some queasily totalitarian shadows.