During a High Court of Justice hearing on Monday, the Interior Ministry agreed
to review its pilot of “smart” identity cards, to examine whether creating a
single, centralized biometric database is the best option.
groups and data security campaigners petitioned the court in February, warning
that government plans for a centralized database comprised “a sensitive and
powerful resource that provides an unprecedented mechanism for surveillance and
Petitioners’ attorney Avner Pinchuk of the Association for
Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI); Prof. Karine Nahon of the University of
Washington’s Information School; the Movement for Digital Rights; and
information security expert Doron Ofek said the Interior Ministry’s pilot
program – which had been due to start soon – had deliberately omitted any study
of alternatives to a centralized database.
The petitioners said the
ministry should examine whether a central database was in fact needed and
whether there were other options that could prevent data leaks or information
Though the court rejected the petition as premature because the
pilot has not yet run, Justices Miriam Naor, Hanan Melcer and Isaac Amit also
accepted the petitioners’ arguments that the state must rework its planned pilot
of the program to evaluate whether it is necessary to store the population’s
biometric data in a single, centralized database.
The Interior Ministry
has been planning for years to replace existing ID cards with ones containing
biometric data, and in 2009, the Knesset approved the biometric data law that
allowed the initiative to move forward.
Monday’s High Court hearing came
after the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee gave the green light
in May for the Population Registry to soon begin a two-year pilot of the smart
During the hearing, ACRI’s Pinchuk blasted the pilot as “faulty”
and slammed the government for failing to evaluate alternatives to a single
The petitioners accused the Interior Ministry of deciding the
results of the pilot project in advance, and said the trial run was intended
only to give the appearance of a genuine study.
Pinchuk also criticized
as overkill the ministry’s argument that smart ID cards would prevent identity
theft, dubbing it “like shooting a bird with a cannon.”
Also during the
hearing, Melcer and Amit noted that Israel was the second democratic country
(after Spain) to create a database of its citizens’ biometric data, while Deputy
Supreme Court President Naor noted that the state had invested “a huge fortune”
in the database.
The Interior Ministry said it agreed to accept the
petitioners’ request to examine afresh its pilot project directive – the
ministry’s order stipulating exactly how the pilot will be run and
As a result, the ministry must establish new parameters and
standards to be tested during the pilot.
However, and significantly, the
Interior Ministry can still conduct voluntary tests of the smart card initiative
ahead of the pilot, which is expected to start within several weeks.
court, attorney Dana Briskman for the state said the ministry also plans to ask
Israelis to volunteer to give their fingerprints to be held in a temporary
This, Briskman said, would be separate from the pilot and
regardless of any amendments made to the pilot directive. The petitioners
slammed the announcement.
Civil rights groups have said the issue of a
central biometric database is of particular concern after the theft of a
sensitive population registry database exposed the personal data of nine million
The Tel Aviv district attorney indicted six people in May over
the data theft, in which a Welfare and Social Services Ministry computer
contractor allegedly copied and stole the database from the ministry’s computers
and sold it to a haredi organization. The database passed through several hands,
before ending up freely available for download on various Internet file-sharing