Shalom extends biometric database pilot despite report that it fails many of its benchmark

Decision comes hours before highly critical state comptroller report which concludes that Knesset should think hard before making the database a permanent fixture.

June 23, 2015 15:59
3 minute read.
biometric database

A man has his fingerprint scanned [file]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Interior Minister Silvan Shalom on Tuesday preempted a critical report of the hotly debated and revolutionary biometric database pilot for identity cards, announcing he was extending the program for a nine month trial period.

Shalom’s decision came only hours before the much anticipated report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira came out with a highly critical conclusion that the pilot program has failed many of its benchmarks and that the Knesset should think hard before making the database a permanent fixture.

Major deficiencies highlighted by Shapira include: the absence of information about how well the database has prevented identity theft, the use of a defective process for scanning fingerprints such that 430,000 scans are defective, the use of a temporary and flawed database system and method of comparing the system’s results that cannot be used long-term, failure to consider alternative solutions to preventing identity theft and the seeming ignoring of the comptroller’s prior warnings of the database’s deficiencies.

For years, the country had suffered from a phenomenon of persons forging false identity cards, which eventually lead the Knesset to authorize the pilot in 2009 as a way to try to roll back false identity cards.

New identity cards linked to the biometric database included far more personal information, such as a person’s fingerprints and a facial scan, to make it more difficult to falsify or steal the cards.

The authority for managing the database was established in August 2011 and the pilot was launched June 30, 2013 with 430,000 voluntarily registering for the biometric card in the first year alone and that number eventually reaching over 700,000.

Because it was a pilot program and because of serious concerns that abuse of the more personal information used in the cards could lead to grave privacy violations, all registration for the program has been voluntary until now, and its continuation has been an open question.

The report covers two rounds of reviewing the program.

The first review took place from January-July 2014 while the second round covers September 2014-January 2015.

Shalom explained his decision to extend the program as necessary for him and the new members of the Knesset State Control Committee to better acquaint themselves with the issue since they are new in being responsible for the issue.

Regarding the comptroller’s statement that the pilot did not follow whether the biometric cards are preventing identity theft, the Biometric Database Authority responded that all of the data in other countries where similar programs are being implemented shows a clear trend of reduced identity theft.

Shapira also said that between August 2013-April 2014 a whopping 16 percent of 91,000 new biometric identity cards used at Ben-Gurion Airport failed to work, the majority occurring because the quality of the fingerprints embedded in the cards deteriorated.

The authority did not address the specific numbers raised by the comptroller, but said Shapira’s in-real-time review of the pilot allowed for the program leaders to fix such issues as the program progressed and that such problems have been fixed.

Next, the authority attacked alternatives to the database as insufficient and faulty, though again, it did not directly respond to the allegation of how adequately it had reviewed those alternatives.

Further, the authority said officials from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the police and other outside evaluators were satisfied both with the program’s protection of individual’s privacy and with its progress in fixing deficiencies.

Knesset State Control Committee chairman Karin Elharar said the report “raises man failures and the State of Israel cannot move into the biometric world until all of the failures are corrected.”

The Movement for Digital Rights, which views the program as a threat to privacy rights, slammed the authority and called to cancel the program, stating “the comptroller’s report identified a negligent government authority, which did not hesitate to deceive other state authorities and the public” about how well the program is working.

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