In the 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character is forced to go to
extreme measures – distorting his facial contours and replacing one of his eyes
– to avoid being detected by the same authorities for whom he worked. That might
seem like science fiction, but big business and big brother are racing to
develop technologies that use physical characteristics impossible to counterfeit
to gather information about us.
Known as biometrics, countries such as
the US, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal have begun using anything from
fingerprints and the veins in our hands, to the iris and retina in our eyes to
facial contours to create data banks of their citizens and develop “smart” ID
cards or passports. The goal is to prevent identity theft and illegal
immigration and improve law enforcement.
Meanwhile, businesses have begun
working on marketing technologies that link our easily accessible facial
contours to our Facebook profiles where a wealth of personal data reveal our
tastes and shopping habits.
The Jewish state is embarking on its own
biometric experiment. Citizens in Rishon Lezion and Ashdod will be the first to
participate in a two-year pilot program that will allow them to receive smart ID
cards if they agree to submit biometric data – fingerprints and facial
The idea is to combat the widespread use in Israel of
counterfeit IDs to steal state benefits such as National Insurance Institute
stipends or to compromise our security.
A number of civil and digital
rights groups concerned with the trampling of rights to privacy are up in arms
over the issue. In July of last year, the High Court of Justice, responding to a
petition by the Association of Civil Right in Israel and the Israel Digital
Rights Movement, agreed that the creation of a database would be an “extreme”
and “harmful” measure.
Only after the government agreed to reexamine the
project did the High Court dismissed the petition, saying it was premature to
issue a ruling because the pilot had yet to be launched.
the wake of the court’s criticism, the Interior Ministry changed certain aspects
of the biometric database. And the program is voluntary. Those who opt not to
provide data will not have to.
Nevertheless, concerns remain. While the
benefits of smart ID cards are clear, the compilation of a biometric database is
highly intrusive and can compromise privacy.
technologies will allow Israeli security personnel, using nothing more than a
camera, to scan a crowd at, say, an airport terminal, and check the faces
against a database to weed out a potential terrorist.
But the same
technology in the wrong hands can be wrongly exploited to gather information
without the knowledge of the person being investigated. Israeli citizens deemed
to hold opinions that are “politically questionable” such as right-wing “hilltop
youth” or left-wing boycott activists who demonstrate against the security
barrier might be intimidated. We do not cover our faces.
But our faces
should be private in the sense they should not be tagged with our identities
without our permission.
Concentrating information in a central database
exposes Israeli citizens to international hackers. The recent mass theft of
credit card information from Israeli banks by Saudi and Iranian hackers is proof
that data cannot be completely secured. And when it comes to verifying identity,
biometrics can only confirm that the person being inspected is the same person
who enrolled in the system.
But what if an individual uses bogus
“foundation” documents (birth certificate, marriage certificate etc)? What if
hackers succeed in connecting someone else’s name to my biometric information?
How will I prove I am me? The very technologies used to prevent identity theft
might be manipulated to make detection of such theft impossible.
debate over the introduction of a biometric database in Israel or, for that
matter, in any country, raises serious questions. Like it or not, we live in an
era in which it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain details about
Often this information is provided voluntarily on Facebook and other
While Minority Report-type technologies might still be
so much science fiction, the day is quickly approaching when intimate
information about every one of us will be readily available and privacy will be
a thing of the past.
We must find ways of balancing the right to privacy
with technological developments.