Hight Court: Biometric database should be changed

Interior Ministry agrees to review its pilot of “smart” identity cards, to see whether centralized biometric database is best.

Biometric fingerprint identity 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Biometric fingerprint identity 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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.
Civil rights 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 control.”
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 theft.
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 cards.
During the hearing, ACRI’s Pinchuk blasted the pilot as “faulty” and slammed the government for failing to evaluate alternatives to a single database.
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 evaluated.
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.
In 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 database.
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 Israelis.
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 sites.