Dan Stroot

Minority Report and Big Data

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5 min read

The United Arab Emirates holds the largest biometric database in the world, the Emirates Identity Authority has announced. The population register of Emirates ID has over 103 million digital fingerprints and over 15 million digital facial recognition records, which includes multiple records of each UAE resident, and digital signatures as of October 11, 2012, senior officials said.

Dr. Ali Al Khoury, Director General of Emirates ID, said the authority has submitted an official application to the World Record Academy to recognize this record. Asked about the confirmation of the authority’s claims about the world record, an official spokesman of the authority told Gulf News on Sunday: "We have made worldwide surveys and inquiries with the similar official authorities and agencies of the world governments holding such databases and confirmed that our database is the largest. The World Record Academy also confirmed to us that no other government or authority has made a similar claim for such a record." 1

The question you should be asking yourself right now is “for what purpose?” What is the value of having it? Who has access to it? Why make it so publicly known?

The Emirates Identity Authority states the benefits are:

  • ID Card is mandatory for all citizen [sic] and legal residence [sic] 15 years [sic] and above
  • Identification and Verification as per International Standards
  • Protect individuals’ identity
  • Can be used to access Secure eServices
  • Provides Identity Information
  • Stores many ID applications in future
  • Prevents fraud & Identity Theft
  • Portable personal database

Note the first benefit listed is that it is mandatory for all people 15 years of age and older.

Let’s come up with some ideas of our own

Government Services: This is the most obvious use. Governments collect taxes and provide services to their citizens. They need a simple, cheap, accurate way to identify you to prevent fraud. In the US we are familiar with the concept of people defrauding Social Security, Medicare, and many other government programs. Would a method that cuts down or eliminates fraud pay for itself?

Take it a step further – Imagine if you went to access a government service and it recognizes you and verifies you are qualified to receive the service, yet it also determines you have not filed an income tax return in four years. What would we expect to happen?

Crime: The information could be used to as a better way to fight crime. Imagine a country that has facial recognition records and fingerprints of all citizens. Let’s assume you commit a crime and are caught by conventional methods but lie about your identity – will you get away with it?

Now imagine the country develops and deploys a video surveillance network in its major cities. I would imagine these tools could be used in a positive way to deter crime. It would lower the chance of false accusation of innocent people. People who have exhibited a pattern of crime could even be automatically and continuously monitored and tracked.

Many people have seen the movie “Minority Report”. What if I told the United States is trying it out, for real? Our Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is betting on algorithms: it’s building a “prototype screening facility” that it hopes will use factors such as ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate to “detect cues indicative of mal-intent.” DHS calls its “pre-crime” system Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST.

DHS has conducted preliminary research in operational settings to determine the feasibility of using non-invasive physiological and behavioral sensor technology and observational techniques to detect signs of stress, which are often associated with intent to do harm. 2

Healthcare: Imagine your health records are associated with your facial recognition records. Now imagine you have an allergy to certain medications and are involved in a car accident, or you have a heart attack. By scanning your face your medication allergies are known and you are administered the correct medication. Or imagine an elderly person with Alzheimer’s or other serious health issues and they wander off. Couldn’t this technology help find them and bring them to safety?

People are starting to use technology to track their activity on a daily basis – Nike’s Fuel Band, Fitbit, and Jawbone all make personal biometric data collection devices that are meant to be worn 24×7 and track your steps, your sleep patterns and even your heartbeat. What if you shared this data with your healthcare provider? You may get lower healthcare premiums if you live an active lifestyle. Or what if your heart starts beating irregularly in your sleep – what if medical help was summoned on your behalf?

Also imagine for a moment your healthcare provider is your government and they have facial recognition capability. What if you are spotted regularly eating at pizza places and fast food restaurants? Might you receive a call from your healthcare provider urging more healthy choices?

Is it just a coincidence that our National Institute for Health and our National Science Foundation just announced 15 million in new Big Data fundamental research?

“To get the most value from the massive biological data sets we are now able to collect, we need better ways of managing and analyzing the information they contain,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “The new awards that NIH is funding will help address these technological challenges–and ultimately help accelerate research to improve health–by developing methods for extracting important, biomedically relevant information from large amounts of complex data.” 3

Immigration: It is easy to add surveillance of airports, train stations and ports and your passport/travel documents already have your name and photo, plus radio frequency ID tags (RFID). Fingerprint records are captured from you upon entry. “The U.S. Electronic Passport (e-passport) is the same as a regular passport with the addition of a small contactless integrated circuit (computer chip) embedded in the back cover. The chip securely stores the same data visually displayed on the photo page of the passport, and additionally includes a digital photograph. The inclusion of the digital photograph enables biometric comparison, through the use of facial recognition technology, at international borders. The U.S. e-passport also has a new look, incorporating additional anti-fraud and security features. Since August 2007, the U.S. has been issuing only e-passports.” 4

If we see a face it we don’t recognize (you are not in the citizen database and not in the visitor database) then who are you? Why are you here? Of course this assumes of course an extremely high success rate with facial recognition – all of the scenarios I am describing will only work if there is a very very low error rate.

Not just Privacy vs. Security

In the end we all know there is a collision between privacy and security. Yet this is so much broader than many people realize. I do believe like all technology it has the power to make the world a better place when used responsibly.


  1. Emirates ID announces possession of world’s largest number of civil integrated biometrics, EIDA, October 14, 2012
  2. Declan McCullagh, Real Life Minority Report Program Gets a Tryout, CBS News, October 7, 201
  3. NSF Announces Interagency Progress on Administration’s Big Data Initiative, NSF.gov, October 3, 201
  4. The U.S. Electronic Passport, U.S. Department of State, accessed October 21, 2012

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