A biometric database for Israel - vital for security or first step toward 'police state'?

A biometric database for

December 8, 2009 23:16
3 minute read.

One day after the Knesset approved the Biometric Database Law and paved the way for a two-year pilot scheme in which volunteers will receive "smart" passports and identity cards containing their fingerprints and facial scan information, controversy around the move continues to rage. The volunteer program is supposed to form a test run for the creation of a national biometric database, and if it proves successful the database will be implemented nationwide by law. "I think that people are beginning to see the dangers," said Nirit Moskovitch, spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). "When we debated the law with its supporters in Knesset, we noted that Germany had opted to create passports with biometric certificates, but that it chose not to store those details in a central government database. The law's supporters said Germany was taking its history into account," Moskovitch recalled. Two principal risks are inherent in the law, Moskovitch argued. The first involves the possibility that sophisticated criminals or terrorist organizations could break into the Interior Ministry's computer system which houses the biometric database of citizens and make nefarious use of the information. "Criminals could steal fingerprint information and use it to incriminate innocent people," Moskovitch warned. In the past, the Ministry of Interior's national database containing the ID numbers and addresses of all Israeli residents has been breached, she noted. But what most disturbs the ACRI is the fear that the groundwork for a police state are being laid. "The minute you store biometric information on all citizens of Israel, you've created an explosive situation," she said. "Imagine that tomorrow a demonstration over a controversial issue occurs - hardly a rare event in Israel - and the protest is filmed by the ever-growing number of municipal cameras being installed," Moskovitch said. "The images could then be cross-referenced with facial recognition software, and authorities could have all of the information on those who took part. This creates troubling questions regarding privacy and the public domain. Would demonstrators still take part if they knew they could be tracked down and harassed later down the line?" she continued. Moskovitch said the database law placed Israel in the dubious position of being the only state in the enlightened world to move toward having a national biometric database. "Other countries that have this include Yemen and Pakistan," she added. "What we are saying is, what's the rush? Why don't we bide our time to avoid improper uses of the system?" But former Israel Police Investigations Branch head, Cmdr. (ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, told The Jerusalem Post that time was of the essence when it came to implementing the law. Dismissing fears of an Orwellian Big Brother state, Mizrahi said, "In a normal state that does not face the enemies we face, there is no need for such a system. But here we are in an intolerable situation, facing internal and external enemies. The ease with which current Israeli documents can be forged is an enormous problem." Mizrahi said his experience has shown him that Israeli ID cards and passports can be "so easily faked. For us, this is an existential issue. There are thousands of people walking around with fake IDs or with no IDs whatsoever. Some are criminals, and others are hostile elements. You would not believe how many suspects we have found who changed their identities to hide previous convictions. Many identities have also been stolen." Mizrahi said the danger of authorities misusing the information already exists with current central databases. "The IDF's Unit 8200 [of the Intelligence Corps] can cross the line into improper use of information... A prime minister can abuse his office to receive bribes. Should we therefore not have a prime minister? These are the exceptions to the rule," he said. Additionally, Mizrahi argued, a criminal would not need to break into the database to forge fingerprints to frame others. "If the criminal has this ability to copy fingerprints, why break into the database in the first place? The whole idea of the database is to ensure that identities cannot be stolen. This is one of the most silly claims," he said. A biometric database would also prove essential for identifying victims in a mass casualty incident, and would prevent the need for authorities to take DNA samples from the homes of people feared lost in a mass terror attack or natural disaster. "It would avoid the kind of national trauma we saw during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when we didn't know who had fallen and who was taken prisoner by the enemy," Mizrahi said.

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