Amidst controversy, biometric database is launched

Rights groups and data security advocates say the new initiative violates privacy rights of citizens.

Teudat Zehut, Israeli ID card 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Teudat Zehut, Israeli ID card 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
After years of debate and controversy, the Interior Ministry launched a pilot program of its biometric database, inviting residents to sign up for the new identification card at the ministry office in Rishon Lezion.
The ministry said that the majority of the few dozen people who arrived on Monday to receive a new identity card opted for the digital version.
The pilot took place in the afternoon between 12:30 and 2:30, with Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) signing up for a digital ID card.
The biometric database program was first approved by the Knesset in 2009, and in June 2011 the Knesset Science and Technology Committee approved the ordinances needed to establish the database.
The database has long stirred criticism from civil rights groups and data security advocates, who say that it would provide unprecedented opportunities for snooping on civilians and could pose a big security risk if it fell into the wrong hands.
A couple dozen Israelis held a protest outside the office in Rishon Lezion on Monday, where they spoke out against the database.
Nir Hirschman from the Digital Rights Movement said the protesters wanted to issue the message that “most of the people working in data security and privacy issues believe that the database is a serious threat to the State of Israel and its citizens and that most of [the government’s] attempts to reassure us about the security checks they will implement are just a bluff.”
He added that there’s no way to ensure that someone from within the government who has access to the database won’t use it for illicit reasons, or that hostile states and terror organizations won’t manage to access it.
Similar fears were voiced by opposition leader and Labor Party chief Shelly Yacimovich on Monday, when she said during a Labor Party meeting that “it’s only a matter of time before it falls into the hands of hostile elements, which for instance could use it to find the address, fingerprint and pictures of IDF soldiers.”
Sa’ar tried to allay those fears, saying in Rishon Lezion on Monday that “the biometric database and the smart identity cards are protected as needed. We worked in order to ensure that they will be protected up to the most stringent international standards.”
He added that the database will include only those citizens who agree to take part and that the new cards will prevent identity theft.
“We live in a reality where there are 160,000 fake identity cards in Israel. This is a good base for carrying out a series of crimes, including fraud and counterfeit.”
Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum (Yisrael Beytenu) said that all of the criticism of the system “is without any basis” and that the system will be properly secured.
Responding to news of the pilot, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said on Sunday that it “objects to the biometric database because it is not a necessary aspect of a ‘smart’ identification system – even one that includes biometric data – but rather a repository of citizens’ physiological data, vulnerable to both government abuse and outside infiltration (as recent developments have shown).”
An ACRI spokesman added that “in fact the Interior Ministry has delayed the issuance of smart IDs since 2007 in order to combine the process with the creation of a biometric database.”
While ACRI took some credit for having pushed the state to make improvements over the years from a security perspective, it said the program still “strikes a serious blow to citizens’ privacy and completely undermines the balance of power between the state and its citizens.”