New privacy regulations in Abu Dhabi might protect biometric data

February 13, 2015 - 

High-finance is driving new employee privacy regulations in Abu Dhabi’s new economic “free zone”, which purportedly would protect sensitive data, such as biometrics.

The UAE emirate intends to establish a free zone for financial services on Al Maryah Island and envisions employee privacy as a major component of its efforts. The free zone, will be directed under the jurisdiction of Abu Dhabi Global Market. It aims to direct more foreign direct investment and foreign businesses into the emirate. Companies in the free zone will be permitted to establish operations without a local partner and will be able to repatriate profits and capital. Developments of the island will include financial, commercial, leisure, entertainment and residential facilities designed to enhance Abu Dhabi’s long-term development and economic ambitions.

The first phase of the island is complete and includes several key developments including Abu Dhabi Global Market Square, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, the Galleria and the Rosewood Abu Dhabi Hotel. Currently under construction is a Four Seasons Hotel, the Al Hilal Bank commercial tower and Farglory’s Maryah Plaza consisting of four residential buildings. Recently announced and scheduled for completion by 2018 is Al Maryah Central, a 3.1 million square foot mixed-use development which will include a 2.3 million square foot of world-class iconic regional shopping centre anchored by two internationally renowned department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdales, a 20-screen cinema, health-club, food market, children’s entertainment and rooftop parks that include an outdoor amphitheatre for film screenings and events. The precinct will also feature two 400,000 square foot integrated towers; one with a hotel and serviced apartments and the other with luxury residences.

As a “free zone”, the district will have its own regulator and courts with an aim of building an internationally-acceptable regulatory and legal framework, along with an attractive business environment in order to facilitate sustainable business growth. A key component of the free zone’s jurisdictional independence will include protections of employee personal data.

According to a recent media report, Abu Dhabi Global Market has drafted regulations that define personal data as “any information relating to a person who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identification number or to one or more factors specific to his biological, physical, biometric, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity”.

The regulations are in line with European regulations, in order to attract Western businesses and to provide alignment with financial practices in Switzerland and the City of London. However, the new proposed rules do not allow employees to access their personal data.

The regulations also do not have prohibitions against export of personal data to other jurisdictions outside the “free zone”. This is not surprising, due to increasingly stringent security regulations in the Middle East in order to deter both terrorism and criminal activity. The creation of these rules therefore create a tension between protection of employee data and the use of such data by governments for security purposes.

This week, BiometricUpdate.com reported that the Gulf states were working on an integrated biometric database that would allow the Arab nations to share their respective biometric data about migrant workers. The database, which will include data on all expats who have violated civil and criminal laws or been convicted or deported, will be designed to prevent any convicted expatriate workers from re-entering a Gulf country if there is proof of their criminal involvement in their previous country of residence.

Discussed back in October at the last GCC labor ministers’ meeting, the planned system must still be cleared by the ministries of labor and interior of all GCC countries. The integrated database comes in the midst of rising crime rates in the GCC countries. Many have blamed the rise in crime rates on the growing migrant workforce, which represents 70 percent of the total labor force, or 20 million workers in total.

Consequently, data protection as proposed in the new free zone could likely be “kept in check” by government data sharing for security purposes, in order to reduce criminal activity. This means that while the regulations might protect employee data in a corporate context, that data will most likely be accessible to area governments if requested.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.