After months of heated debate, the Knesset approved the Biometric Database Law Monday night, paving the way for the introduction of "smart" identification documents for all Israelis.
Once the law goes into effect, there will be a trial period of two years, during which participation in the biometric database will be voluntary.
If the trial period is deemed successful, Interior Ministry officials will be authorized to take the fingerprints and facial contours of all Israeli residents before providing them with identifying documents. The documents will include a micro-chip, which will contain photos of two fingerprints and the person's facial contours.
The plenum finally approved the legislation by a vote of 40 to 11, with three abstaining, after coalition skeptics forced the government to draft a compromise, to allay fears that a biometric database would provide fertile ground for computer hackers and violate citizens' basic privacy rights.
The law, dubbed by its detractors "the Big Brother bill," had been scheduled to be approved three weeks ago, but its opponents, who included Public Affairs Minister Michael Eitan, convinced the coalition to go back to the negotiating table and create a ministerial committee to probe the issue further.
That committee, which included Eitan as well as Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, and Law Committee Chairman MK David Rotem reached a compromise establishing the two-year trial period.
Three months prior to the end of that period, the government will re-assess the utility of the database behind the "smart" IDs, and the prime minister and interior minister will report on their findings to a special ministerial committee that will be established for that purpose, as well as to a Knesset committee.
Following that report, the Interior Minister will be empowered to extend the trial by an additional two years, at the end of which a final decision must be made.
"The smart identity card provides the basis for advancing the services that the state can give citizens, making the bureaucracy involved in serving the citizen a thing of the past," said the bill's original sponsor, Science and Technology Committee Chairman MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima). Sheetrit began drafting the bill when he served as interior minister during the Olmert administration.
Among the other benefits, Sheetrit cited, was the fact that the "smart" documents were nearly impossible to forge.
"There is no truth to most things that have been published about the law," said Sheetrit. "In the majority of countries that have introduced biometric passports heretofore, there is a biometric database."
The Kadima MK reassured his colleagues that the database would be more secure than current databases that hold sensitive information.
"If the databases of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the Prime Minister's Office are currently protected at a level of 10, then this one will be protected at a level of 11," said Sheetrit.
"The database will be divided into two parts, both of which are encoded. The database will have no external access or access to the Internet. If the police want to use it to identify someone, they will need a court's permission."
One of the two databases will include the name of the card-bearer and the other the pictures of his fingerprints and the facial contours. The two data banks will be established in two separate ministries and will be linked by a code.
Nevertheless, the bill's opponents remained unconvinced. Eitan himself said that while he would vote in favor of the law, he still opposed the establishment of the database.
Eitan reiterated Monday that the database was not just a threat to the rights of the individual, but also to Israel's security.
The Committee for Opposing the Database accused MKs who voted in favor of the law of "abandoning citizens' security on the altar of political deals. Coalition members' adherence to coalition discipline on a vote that held key implications for citizens' security and for democracy was completely irresponsible."
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who remained a staunch opponent of the bill, described the database as "dangerous, expensive and unnecessary."
In his speech on the plenum floor shortly before the vote, Horowitz held up pages of personal information that he said was drawn from the Population Registry and available on the Internet.
"Millions of shekels will be invested in this database, and it is difficult for me to see how the Interior Ministry, after a so-called pilot, will agree to abandon the project and the gigantic investment that it made," warned Horowitz.