The Biometric Future of Crossing Borders While Brown

As officials keyed in my details and clicked through their files, I would be told why, with the smiling flourish of a mystery solved on an otherwise monotonous day. Indian passports are identified by a letter followed by 7 numbers, but the eGate system only records the number. And denuded of that initial letter, my passport number matches that of someone on the UAE’s ban list. Which means I have been permanently flagged as a result. Repeating this charade every time I entered or exited the country quickly got old, but it was still on the whole much faster than braving the teeming immigration hall, and so I continued. Over the years, I learned a little more about this person—my passport double—each time. And each time, details were reiterated—or sometimes contradicted—by several people.

He was an Indian man.

He was a criminal.

He had absconded.

He had overstayed his visa.

He had committed some kind of financial fraud.

He had issued a lot of bounced checks.

He had been deported and wasn’t allowed back in.

All this had apparently happened just before the global financial crisis, and I imagined he had gotten out just in time and was busy gleefully hustling and swindling once again, perhaps back in Dubai under a new passport number. I never learned his name or very much else about him, but he made his presence felt every time I had to interface with the UAE government. Each new residence visa issued in Sharjah had to go to the capital of Abu Dhabi for security clearance, and it became so difficult to open a new bank account that I eventually abandoned the application.

Occasionally, I would be told that I could call UAE Gate’s Abu Dhabi office the morning of any flight, at least three hours in advance, to get myself cleared. Upon doing this, the official would promise, my card would—surely, definitely—let me through. It seemed almost more trouble than it was worth, but after first hearing about this option, I tried it out the next few times I flew.

It worked zero times.

When I got that new machine-readable passport, I pranced to the UAE Gate office with renewed enthusiasm before being told that the card was linked to the visa in my old passport, and all I could do was to wait out the last year of my visa. It finally happened on a Hong Kong trip this May, and I entered and exited on my new card without any fanfare, almost disappointed after all these years when it finally worked.

And one summer during college I actually got that “welcome home” at JFK—from a grizzled old white man—shocking me into such a daze that I’m still not sure if it entirely happened. 

Dubai Airport has recently overtaken Heathrow as the world’s busiest for international travel, and authorities have announced that it will be upgrading to a new system using IOM, or Iris on the Move technology. With it, identification and clearance will be essentially instantaneous. It’s like an E-Zpass for humans—the passenger need only walk through it, without even having to pause to look into a camera. An interim “smarter” eGate was recently piloted in Dubai. It couples biometric passports (India doesn’t issue these, of course) with a retinal scan and promises to halve the processing time down to 15 seconds. IOM is expected to be operational sometime in 2015, and the UAE Gate will soon be phased out. In spite of myself, I’ll be sorry to see it go. 

As for my passport doppelganger, I never felt anything more than mild irritation. Sometimes I wonder what really happened to him. He had been deported just before the global financial crisis, and perhaps he lost his job. I hope he landed on his feet. Perhaps I’ll meet him one day in Dubai and never know it.

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Rahel Aima is a writer based in Dubai, the editor of THE STATE, and a contributing editor at The New Inquiry

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