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Emirates wedges national ID cards inside NFC phones

ID-by-handset to become norm after gov inks deal with Etisalat

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The United Arab Emirates has signed up local operator Etisalat with a view to getting the national ID card embedded into mobile phones.

The memorandum of understanding, signed by the Emirates Identity Authority and Etisalat, sets out a plan for both parties to examine the feasibility of implementing the existing ID Card as an NFC application installed on a mobile phone, meaning that forgetting one's handset wouldn't just be inconvenient, it would be illegal too.

The existing card, which arrived in 2004, uses an ISO7816 chip (same as a credit card) to store encrypted credentials including the holder's name, birthday, gender and photograph, and the 15-digit key to the Population Register which was set up at the same time. Also stored on the chip, but not printed on the card, are the holder's fingerprints.

A phone wouldn't have all those details in human-readable form, printed on the outside, but it would have a short-range radio for relaying them to a reader (complying with the NFC standard), so we'd assume that Etisalat will be pricing up the cost of those readers for the government.

Etisalat has a history of working closely with the UAE government. Back in 2009 the operator sent out a "patch" to all its BlackBerry users that was nothing more than thinly-disguised snoopware. Fortunately the "network upgrade", as Etisalat called it, was so badly written it was flagged almost immediately much to the embarrassment of all involved.

Carrying an ID card in the UAE is mandatory at all times, so once the card is in a mobile then one will have no excuse not to have one handy. That might sound draconian, but it's worth remembering that failing to carry a mobile has already prompted arrests in Germany and France (on the grounds that one must be hiding something).

Once one has digital ID cards, then pushing them into mobile phones is a logical evolution, and the induction-powered NFC (which works when the phone's battery is dead) is a suitable technology, as UAE residents should soon find out. ®

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