Abu Dhabi's lightning-fast Covid-19 scanners raise privacy fears

A security guard using the EDE scanner on a mobile phone to detect Covid-19 at a mall in Abu Dhabi, on June 29, 2021.
A security guard using the EDE scanner on a mobile phone to detect Covid-19 at a mall in Abu Dhabi, on June 29, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (THOMAS REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Data rights groups are warning of privacy violations and risks to vulnerable communities after Abu Dhabi deployed scanners at border crossings, malls and other public locations that could detect Covid-19 in seconds.

The Abu Dhabi health department says the EDE scanners can confirm a Covid-19 infection by measuring an individual's electromagnetic wave emissions, which it says are altered when the coronavirus is present, according to a June 27 statement by Abu Dhabi's Media Office.

The new system has rights groups and even some residents worried.

"I went to a mall, and instead of a temperature scan, the (security guard) appeared to be taking a picture on a cellphone," said Mr Firas, a consultant who has been living in Abu Dhabi for nine months and asked to use a pseudonym.

He said the guard informed him that the phone camera was not only testing his electromagnetic emissions but also conducting a retina scan, which the guard said could tell him whether Mr Firas was vaccinated or had had a recent polymerase chain reaction test.

Mr Firas suspected the scanner was linked to the digital identification system used by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to provide residents access to their health records, visa applications and other official processes.

"That's the compromise you make when you come here. We signed a deal with this system in exchange for safety and security," he said.

A Media Office spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that "the scanners are not linked to any identification system and no one is identified when scanned", adding that the system neither captures nor stores any personal data.

The authorities in the UAE have relied heavily on artificial intelligence for years, including facial recognition technology.

In 2018, Dubai police launched a network of thousands of cameras - dubbed Oyoon, Arabic for eyes - to help them fight crime across the emirate.

After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, UAE police deployed smart helmets to scan the temperatures of up to 200 passersby a minute, while the police in Dubai pledged to publish photos of anyone violating curfew restrictions without blurring their faces.

Amnesty International technology researcher Matt Mahmoudi called it "the surveillance-for-services trade-off", often seen in smart cities.

"That particular type of facial recognition (in Abu Dhabi) is worrying because the technology of mass surveillance stands to be in violation of people's right to privacy," he said over the phone.

The UAE is rated "not free" by the United States-based think-tank Freedom House, which said state surveillance of the Internet was widespread, infringed on users' right to privacy and did not appear to be regulated by any "meaningful legal oversight".

That "opaque legal framework" could specifically lead to the harassment of religious or sexual minorities in the largely conservative emirates, said Lebanon-based digital rights group SMEX executive director Mohamad Najem.

The EDE scanner can confirm a Covid-19 infection by measuring an individual's electromagnetic wave emissions. PHOTO: REUTERS

Gulf Centre for Human Rights executive director Khalid Ibrahim also worried the technology could lead to more surveillance of migrant workers in the UAE, which the International Labour Organisation says hosts the fifth-largest migrant population in the world.

The roll-out of Abu Dhabi's new scanners "was not transparent", Mr Ibrahim said, demanding more details from the government on how the technology works, what role facial recognition plays in it, and if security forces would have access to the results.

"These are all important questions that the government's shrinking amount of transparency has not addressed," he said.