In The Media

UN program lets Syrian refugees pay for groceries with scan of their eyes

by Laura Wright (feat. Thomas Keenan)

July 14, 2016

Paying for groceries with a scan of your eye?

The future is here, and it's come to a place most people wouldn't think of as a hub for cutting-edge technology: a camp for Syrian refugees.

The United Nations' World Food Programme, working with the UN's High Commission for Refugees, has been experimenting with different technologies to try to improve how they deliver food to people in need.

Iris scans are an example of biometric data, which is data recorded from the body, and is as as individual to a person as their fingerprint, and often even more accurate.

"It seems kind of weird," said Robert Opp, director of innovation and change management at the World Food Programme. "But we feel it's making our work better, and it's more efficient."

The program launched in April at the Azraq camp in Jordan. Opp says that when people register with the UN, their biometric data is recorded along with other information. That data is then linked with their profile in the UN's database, and shared with shops that have partnered with the organization.

All a person needs to do to buy groceries is to walk into a shop, pick up their items, and in the blink of an eye, they've paid. This is particularly crucial for people who have fled in a hurry, without being able to grab cash or credit cards.

More reliable than fingerprints

An iris scan is an accurate way to identify a person. It's even more reliable than fingerprints, which can change with age, creating a particular problem when trying to use the data to identify children.

Opp says the UN partnered with local Jordanian company IrisGuard, and have so far registered 17,000 Syrian refugees. They're hoping to expand it to all 500,000 refugees who are living in Jordan.

On top of being a reliable form of identification, Opp says the scan replaces the need to use cash, vouchers or some kind of electronic card to buy groceries, which can create security issues for refugees.

"You don't want people walking around necessarily with excess cash or a bank card that could be stolen or forcibly taken from you under duress, because we do have need to make sure there is security for people who are in the camps," he said. "The camp situations can be very difficult and it's important that we're not making people into targets for theft."

This project marks the first time the UN has used iris scans to replace more traditional forms of payment. Opp says the program has already injected $550 million US into the local community in the camp and in the surrounding Jordanian towns.

'You're never going to forget your eyeballs'

The use of biometric data for identification is not new — anyone with a Nexus card has had an iris scan when crossing the U.S. — Canada border. And fingerprinting technology has been sophisticated for decades.

Fingerprints have been implemented in some mobile phones as a security option in lieu of a traditional four-digit password.

The UN has itself experimented with using fingerprints. But Opp says they're less reliable than an iris scan.

And they're "a real pain in the neck to get," says Thomas Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary, a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and the author of Technocreep: The surrender of privacy and the capitalization of intimacy.

Keenan says the scans are more convenient for most people.

"It's unique to a person, and hard to fake — you can't really change your eyeballs," he said. "And you're never going to forget your eyeballs when you go to the store."

Ethical concerns

Opp says he has not heard any negative reactions to the use of the scans.

But even without any opposition from people using the program in Jordan, there are serious ethical and security considerations to take into account, says Keenan.

Keenan says it comes down to two things: understanding, and the ability to opt out.

"Do you know what's going on [with an iris scan], and do you have a choice," he said.

There are also questions about what's being done with the data, and how securely it's stored. If not secure, it could leave people who are already in a vulnerable situation susceptible to having their data falling into the wrong hands, or having it used against them in some way.

"The mind boggles at the possibilities," said Keenan. "It's that kind of situation where this is a way to feed people. It's probably more good than bad, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be thinking about the privacy side."

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