In the blink of an eye: how biometric tech is reforming aid work in Jordan

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Eyes, ears, fingers and possibly body odors are becoming as important as hearts and lungs for the existence of many humans.

Activities such as travelling, depositing money in a bank account or even unlocking a mobile phone are becoming more dependant on the human body to verify identity than name, date of birth and nationality.

By 2021, it is estimated that 300 million smartphones equipped with iris scanners may be in use worldwide.

This comes at a time of growing biometric identification technology that scans unique biological traits such as fingerprints, iris patterns and hand geometry to verify a person’s identity.

The fingerprint or iris scan is first stored in a digital template and is later matched with the biometric information presented by the person who needs to be identified. The system will then either reject or confirm the individual’s identity depending on the match.

Soon enough, biometric identity will be replacing passwords as a more secure solution to combat identity theft and fraud. The technology is already being tested and deployed in Jordan’s largest refugee camp, populated by mainly Syrian refugees who fled the brutal war.

ATMs on the lookout

Aid organizations including the World Food Program and the UN Refugee Agency are resorting to biometric verification as a more efficient method of keeping track of the unprecedented number of displaced people globally.

In 2013, Jordan became the first country to ever host an iris scanning system to register refugees.  

According to the regional communications information officer at WFP, Reem Nada, 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are biometrically registered by UNHCR.

In addition to the registration, a biometric cash system was implemented in 2012 by UNHCR with the collaboration of Amman-based Iris Guard to distribute donations among Syrian families residing in the country.

Previously, families collected a $140 monthly grant through ATM cards designated to them by the refugee agency. With this technology, refugees registered with UNHCR can visit one of 200 ATM machines offering the service to scan their irises. Cardless and no pin code required, the system identifies the person and dispenses out the cash.

Iris scanners are installed in over 200 ATM machines in Jordan. (Image via Iris Guard)

Purchasing food with a blink of an eye

Aside from cash, 34 iris scan machines are being used by the WFP as part of its biometric food assistance program  which relies on UNHCR’s database.

Refugees can buy food from supermarkets at the camps, and get their irises scanned instead of use e-cards or pay in cash.  

“Though the cards were very efficient and secure, just like any bank card, they can be lost or stolen and it may take up to two weeks to issue a new one,” Nada said.

Once the iris is scanned, the system matches the information to UNHCR’s biometric digital template and processes it through the bank. The purchase is then confirmed and a receipt is printed for the refugee.  

“This system protects beneficiaries from potential theft or misuse of their assistance while at the same time introduces an extra level of security to the funds WFP receives from its valuable donors,” confirmed Nada.

Refugees residing in camps who wish to benefit from WFP’s assistance are forced to use the biometric system, except for special cases - including old people who can’t shop for themselves, or people with physical problems in their eyes. So far, only 1400 Syrians out of 107,000 in the camps are classified as special cases.

Pam Dixon, the executive director of World Privacy Forum finds such compulsion problematic.

“I do understand the great and correct desire to reduce fraud and ensure everybody gets what they need... but people who already have been denied many of life’s choices are yet denied another choice,” she said during an interview with Wamda.

In the future, WFP intends to install around 330 machines in over 200 shops across Jordan.  

Syrian refugee getting her iris scanned at a supermatket in Jordan. (Image via WFP, Shaza Moghraby)

Hacking thumbs and eyeballs

Theoretically, biometrics offer more accurate authentication than passwords because fingerprints, or iris scans simply cannot be replicated. But what if they can be? Afterall, fingerprints and irises are very public. Think of a cup you’re holding or a selfie of your eye on Facebook.

This lack of privacy allows hackers to use very simple tools such as Play-Doh to replicate fingerprints or public images to copy iris scans.

Although it might be harder to hack an iris scan than it is to hack a password, a stolen biometric has much greater repercussions than a stolen password. Unlike a passcode, you can’t change your fingerprint, which means that a single breach could keep the user vulnerable for a lifetime.

However CEO and founder of Iris Guard Imad Malhas confirms that the security measures taken keep the data private and restricts manipulation.

The question of privacy

The fact that the refugee looks into an iris scanner installed on an ATM or in a supermarket does not mean that the bank has access to the person’s iris pattern, Malhas explained during an interview with Wamda. The bank is only a mediator in which the person’s scan gets transmitted to a UNHCR’s database. The bank then receives an authorization from the agency and accordingly either accepts or rejects the transaction.

The name, sex and nationality are all hidden at intermediate points - only refugee case numbers are disclosed.

Since the data is encrypted and permuted, if it leaves the system of a given site, it is rendered useless.

“If someone stole your iris scans taken at two different banks, nothing in common will be found,” Malhas said.

“The iris scan is only meaningful at the site it is registered at; this is how we make sure it is not used for unintended applications in the future.”

With all these measures, Dixon remains concerned mostly about the pressures that can be imposed by other entities or hackers seeking to access the data, especially that UNHCR’s data policy allows conditional sharing of data to third parties.

“Data can be demanded by foreign governments,” she explained.

“And since an iris scan is an identification that will last, it is very easy for governments to reattach an identity to a refugee even if that refugee is trying very hard to escape a very life-threatening situation.”

Dixon believes that policy should come before technology. In this case technology comes first.

By 2020, the global biometrics market is projected to reach $21.9 billion, how much of it will be specified to humanitarian aid is still unknown. However, it seems that more organizations are willing to apply the technology at the same time that human rights groups are concerned about privacy and security.

Achieving a balance between pragmatism and human rights is the next rising challenge.

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