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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

The future of surveillance is hidden in airport ads

'Minority Report' wasn't supposed to be a documentary.
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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

Public anonymity is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Coming soon to an airport in Dubai is an artsy, colorful video security and customs tunnel that scans your face, adds you to a database, indexes you with artificial intelligence and decides if you're free to leave -- or not.

By the end of summer 2018, Dubai International Airport's Terminal 3 will have replaced its security-clearance counter with a walkway tunnel filled with 80 face-scanning cameras disguised as a distracting immersive video.

Travelers' eyes will roam the enclosed tunnel and its virtual shimmering aquarium as they head to their gate, while their biometric data is seamlessly collected, compared and stored ... somewhere, under unknown terms and conditions. According to officials presenting the security and customs tunnel at the 37th Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX) Technology Week at the World Trade Centre in Dubai, its video shows will not be limited to chicken of the sea. The airport plans to also distract its very captive audience with desert scenes, majestically galloping white horses, or ... advertisements.

"The fish is a sort of entertainment and something new for the traveler but, at the end of the day, it attracts the vision of the travelers to different corners in the tunnel for the cameras to capture his/her face print," Maj. Gen. Obaid Al Hameeri, deputy director general of Dubai residency and foreign affairs, told press.

Travelers are expected to "register" their faces at kiosks throughout the airport so they may travel. The tunnel will replace the terminal's security control desk. "At the end of the tunnel," The National reported, "if the traveler is already registered, they will either receive a green message that says 'have a nice trip' or, if the person is wanted for some reason, a red sign will alert the operations room to interfere." You can watch a video of its reporter's walkthrough here.

Australia is currently considering the same thing, filtering passengers through a tunnel that seamlessly captures their biometrics (facial scanning) as they go through the airport.

The "virtual aquarium tunnel" was four years in the making and debuted this week at GITEX. Other stars of the GITEX innovation conference included a flying autonomous taxi and drone motorcycle for police. This year the theme at GITEX is "Reimagining Realities," with a focus on smart cities.

When surveillance becomes 'look at the pretty fish'

The best dystopian fiction frightens because it shows us our future in a hideous funhouse mirror; we know it's based on reality, yet its contortions are too despotically insane to seem possible. Such was the vibe in the sci-fi film Minority Report and its memorable scene of Tom Cruise continually being recognized and served intrusive personalized ads as he's desperately trying to escape a smart city of the future. To avoid the intertwined systems of tailored advertising based on his identity and having his movements tracked and sent to police, he gets surgery from a black-market doctor.

Maybe, like today's social-media sites like to tell us, the science-fiction dystopia of Minority Report was just trying to make his advertising experience better. But considering that the Dubai International Airport is already talking about its security scanner as an advertising surveillance tunnel, it feels like science fiction is letting our current world off the hook by comparison.

You have to wonder where this is leading, all dystopian things considered. I mean, are they being considered? We know that Facebook, ever servile in its advertising greed, has created the world's largest database of biometric identity by way of its nonconsensual facial-recognition program performed on all its users. And this is where we have the first clear instance of law enforcement and advertisers mingling in a facial scanning, AI-run security network. And that, according to Maj. Gen. Obaid Al Hameeri, surreptitious retinal scanning will be added to the 80-camera tunnels in the near future.

It's scary because dystopian science fiction is supposed to be a cautionary tale. Blade Runner was meant to be far-out sci-fi about the brutal contradictions of identity ownership and creating a disposable, trackable working class.

Yet here we are. Even one of the inventors of facial recognition is agonizing about his Frankenstein's monster. "It pains me to see a technology that I helped invent being used in a way that is not what I had in mind in respect to privacy," said Joseph Atick, who helped create facial recognition in the 1990s.

"I can no longer count on being an anonymous person," he told Daily Beast, "when I'm walking down the street." Atick has called for regulations to protect the privacy of citizens because without it, Americans are left with "a myriad of state laws," he said. "And state laws can be more easily manipulated by commercial interests."

We don't know who the airport's officials are who will be accessing the facial-recognition data, which database sharing is in the background or what safeguards will be in place to prevent misuse. Dubai's government arms are also no stranger to being hacked.

Maybe a 15% chance of cavity search

On one hand, the point of the aquarium surveillance tunnel, they tell us, is to streamline the security experience -- to make it "smarter." It's not like travelers will have a choice in the matter, but the rubric is that security and convenience outweigh privacy and personal security in the heat of the moment every time. The TSA is living proof of that; good luck finding an American that will tell you the TSA is convenient and efficient. Though when it comes to data security, when last we checked, the TSA was failing spectacularly at that, too.

Half the people I've talked to about the aquarium tunnel are profoundly excited about this futuristic convenience. Security professionals one and all, they are not deterred by the lurid bait-and-switch attention-for-surveillance aspect. Nor are they disturbed by the implications of inevitable database-security madness that will surely ensue or troubled by questions of accuracy (the FBI's face recognition is only 85% accurate and has trouble with black faces).

Are they jaded after riding from breach to breach, year after year, watching the effects of companies collecting our information only to squander it by giving it less importance than happy advertisers? Or are they just yearning for cities of the future and their magical conveniences?

I can't fault them for either reasoning. Yet I still can't shake the sense that Philip K. Dick, he of the Minority Report and the Blade Runner, was trying to tell us something.

Images: AFP Photo / Giuseppe Cacace (Tunnel); Matt Brian/Engadget (Facial recognition); REUTERS/Bob Riha Jr (TSA)

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