‘You have unforgettable eyes,’ a man once told me. This was not a romantic
moment, however. He was an ophthalmologist assuring me that despite the lapse
between visits my severe astigmatism granted me a special status.
thought of a machine that reads my eyes, facial contours and fingerprints and
stores the information in a biometric database also lacks romance. In fact, it’s
good that there’s no device out there that actually reads my mind – yet –
although, I suspect somewhere in Google’s great empire something is scanning
these lines even as you read them.
It probably already knows I’m a
technophobe – I’ve confessed that publicly before and the information is out
there, forever, in cyberspace. The question is: What will it do with this
information? Indeed, most of my reservations concerning such hi-tech devices are
not only about who has access to my personal details but how they intend to
I am not the type to try Google’s glasses.
phrase “too much information” has never seemed more appropriate than when
considering the constant stream of details this type of eye-wear
Reading a recent article about augmented reality, my astigmatic
eyes nearly popped out of my head. All the “implicit data” that could be
provided, without my consent or knowledge, nearly blew my technologically
challenged mind. More to the point, it nearly made me blow a
Whenever Facebook asks me to update my information to include
“What’s your personal relationship status?” my instinct is to search for the
option: “None of your damn business.”
Since no such answer is provided, I
ignore the clause, obviously causing some kind of metaphysical frown at Facebook
headquarters. The good men and women who work there have programmed the
technology to keep on trying to get the extra desired info. It seems I’m being
stalked by my own computer, and I will no doubt be even more obsessively
trackable by a smartphone were I to give in and get one.
This week the
question of who has my eyes and feels my unique touch (or at least my
fingerprints) arose with the launch of the biometric database pilot project for
Israeli identity cards and passports.
The lack of privacy seems to be
growing ever more acute.
Many recall George Orwell’s Big Brother in this
context (although there is of course a generation or two for whom the words are
associated with so-called reality TV rather than dictatorship). I’m often
reminded of E.M. Forster’s equally foresighted The Machine Stops, first
published in 1909. In the science-fiction short story, people develop a religion
based on the omnipotent global Machine. When the Mending Apparatus, responsible
for keeping the Machine going, breaks down it results in the collapse of the
life-support system of the world as they know it.
If Orwell’s 1984
creates horror from the fact that there are no secrets, Forster’s novella points
to the apocalyptic result of putting all faith in technology.
those who support the database primarily praise its possible use to thwart
terror attacks. And nobody can appreciate the importance of that better than
Some proponents note that a huge amount of information on individuals
is already freely available and that we should not take our privacy for granted
in any case.
Yet anybody who has ever suffered a burglary knows that part
of the trauma is not what is stolen but the knowledge that somebody invaded your
personal space and touched your belongings.
And here lies part of the
conflict between the aims and ramifications of the biometric database. On the
one hand, it is meant to help prevent crime – or make solving cases easier; on
the other, it is “stealing” our own freedom and distinguishing features to do
so. It also makes us more individually vulnerable to identity theft and, as a
state, open to possible cyber terrorism in the hands of hostile
Furthermore, I bet that whatever is cutting edge today will in
just a few years be outdated – and outwitted. Whatever the bureaucratic mind can
come up with to keep track of citizens, the criminal mind will eventually be
able to come up with a solution.
Last week, an internal Interior Ministry
memo cautioning that the database was not sufficiently protected leaked to the
press. That the warning got out does not bode well for the security of the data
When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which governments are
tracking each other and their own citizens, the surprise was in the scope rather
than the fact that such snooping is officially sanctioned.
security excuse is used to trump all others, it is humbling to consider that the
US government knows everything there is to know about Snowden, but, as I write
these lines, is still unable to collar him.
FREEDOM WAS on my mind a lot
this week. It was not only the biometric database, it was also the “sensational”
discovery that so-called Prisoner X was not alone. Ben Zygier, the
Australian-born Israeli who committed suicide in the bathroom of his prison cell
in December 2010, was not the only person being held in anonymity in an Israeli
prison. There is, or was, also a Prisoner Y, similarly held in solitary
As I noted when Zygier’s story first created headlines
worldwide in February, he was not really a Prisoner X at all. His family – and
my heart goes out to them – knew where he was and even visited him.
met with his wife the day he died, and indeed his anguished reaction at being
told that she wanted a divorce and a concerned email from his mother were among
the red lights that should have warned of the increased likelihood of a suicide
Zygier was visited by big-name lawyer Avigdor Feldman, one of
several attorneys with whom he’d been in touch, the day before he killed
himself. And his case had been presented to several judges who had extended his
remand. He did not just disappear off the face of the earth.
week, in an interview with Radio 103FM, said he had also met Prisoner Y.
Although we do not know what landed Zygier in jail, facing a reported 10-year
sentence after a plea bargain, whatever it was, Prisoner Y’s offense, according
to Feldman, was an even more “sensational” and “shocking” breach of
I am concerned that prolonged solitary confinement could be
used as a punitive measure and not purely for reasons of security (either of the
prisoner or the state or both). And the judicial system has to make sure this
does not happen.
I’m not worried that loved ones will suddenly be grabbed
off the streets and disappear, as the tone of the coverage of the case often
That there are nameless people in the Mossad and similar
agencies doing their jobs, despite the personal risks, helps keep the country
safe as much as the existence of any biometric database.
Even in this
age, there is still a place for secrets – secret diplomacy can bring about peace
and secret methods of defense can prevent war.
Not everything needs to be
known in the name of democracy, especially when freedom itself is at
Certain technological developments can be described as progress,
but where’s the currently anonymous bureaucrat who’s prepared to look me in my
(soon-to-be scanned) eyes and tell me that all my secrets – let alone my very
identity – are safe?
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem