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Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Got Big Brothered!

Late last year the U.A.E. suddenly announced that EVERYONE (expats and citizens alike) residing within it's borders would have to get a new national I.D. card. Apparently it does not suffice that I have a driver's licence, a residence visa, a liquor licence, an employment sponsor, auto registration, health cards and that they have numerous copies of my passport-sized photos, NOC (No Objection) letters from my employer, copies of my passport and a scan of my retina.

The idea is to replace these numerous documents with a single smart card that you would present to facilitate everything from entering the country to getting your electricity and phone connected. It is a move toward e-Government as they said on the website.

That sounds all well and goood but there are 5 MILLION people that have to get these cards by the end of 2010 or some folks will be shit-out-of-luck. The way it is explained is that a person won't be able to get a loaf of bread or a tank full of gasoline unless they have one of these cards. As it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The premise may be well-meaning but the execution has been lacking so far. It takes a long time to process that many people.

I was lucky. My employer is a prominent one in Abu Dhabi and I guess they struck a deal with the Identity Ministry. I had to fill out an online Excel form from my HR department with all the same information I have submitted to them and the Government many times previous. Most others would have to pay to have someone convert the Excel form into the barcode version acceptable to the Ministry. Weeks later, I received an email with an attachment that was full of the barcodes and was told to print it and await further instructions. This was in April. Bond.... James Bond!

I got the "further instructions" 4 days ago via another email. I had an appointment on 05 July at 8AM to meet with a representative at the Ministry of Identity at 8AM. I was told to bring my original passport and money, always the money. I thought I would be expedited through the process by a company representative which was good because I had duty that day and didn't want my co-workers to shoulder my load during my absence.

So I get in the car and after a harrowing, always harrowing, drive down the Coast Road in rush hour traffic I found the office easily (it happened to be near where I buy my beer) and of all wonders, I did not have to circle for 20 minutes to find a parking space. In fact there were several to choose from! This simple discovery improved my mood immensely. You have to live here to understand.

I approached the check-in desk and had to show my documents. I asked about my representative that was supposed to hold my hand throughout the process, but was met with blank stares and was given a slip with a number on it, just like everyone else. I took a seat in the full waiting room, full of despair that things weren't going to go according to plan.

True to Arab custom, there were separate waiting rooms for men and women. That's OK, but I didn't know at the time that I had to sit and watch the Arab equivalent of CNN on a flat screen TV mounted behind the "gatekeeper" for 2 hours while I waited for my turn. It's ironic that the newscast I saw covered the recent U.S. Independence Day celebrations and showed fireworks and the Statue of Liberty but also showed video clips of the jets ramming into the World Trade Center on 9/11. The audio was in Arabic so I didn't know what the point was but I am sure it wasn't malicious, but I felt slightly uncomfortable. I want my fellow countrymen to know that the vast majority of Muslims here are appalled about that occurance.

In typical government efficiency, the order in which one was called had nothing to do with logic. Some were called by number and some were called by name. I was called by name so I got in relatively quickly. I never saw my HR representative but maybe he had something to do with it.
I waited in a small room and then was motioned to a desk and my barcodes were scanned by a guy with a bad attitude. He checked my passport for what seemed like forever and he looked up at me and asked"Are you an American?" Geez, I gave him an American passport and he looked at it and still wasn't convinced until I verbally answered in the affirmative. that seemed to satisfy him, he took my cash, stamped my forms three times and he motioned over to the next station.

They next guy was a bit more cordial. He was the photo, always the photos, and fingerprint guy. He had a high-tech device that would do inkless prints. The usual fingers and thumbs were taken but I was surprised when I had to do a full palm and little finger side of the hand print. Think Karate chop. This guy gave me his stamp on my papers and I was free to go. The new card will be delivered to my work or home.

I don't know what all this information is eventually going to be used for but I felt a little uneasy about giving up my biometrics so easily with the veiled threat that I wouldn't be able to eat, drive a car or enter and exit this country freely unless I did so. It can be used for the common good or it can be misused to the detriment of the citizens and residents.

I tend to think overall a national ID card like this is not a good idea for other nations and urge citizens of those nations to resist the temptations of their governments to implement the same policies. The choices I have is to stay and play or leave. I choose to stay for now and will see how this plays out here so I will abide by my host's rules as long as it benefits me in the long run.


BuJassem said...

Love the post!!! and the title!!!

oh well u know ppl here just don't care what the data and info is used for.. if i were a hacker the first place i'd hack is the ID authority... u know what kinda stuff u can get there?!!? duhhhhh..oh well..

BuJassem said...

PS my 2cents on this is that in the west the ppl are scared of governments collecting data on them based on privacy stuff etc.. i mean the biometric data most western countries demand for passports is scary enough.. but

over here the gov uses this stuff to scare ppl and for prevention of crime and stuff rather than invasion of privacy and other concerns that ppl have in the west.

either way am not a fan of any kinda extra form of ID.. unless u tell me the whole world will use ID cards and that my passport is no longer required.

until then i'd happily keep the passport + driving license etc.. regardless of where i live

Dubai Sunshine said...

Hey...Great blog! Only just discovered it :) It's fun to see an expat's perspective and glad to read that you're enjoying things here :)