Biometric database is a threat to privacy

When a government holds too much information on its citizens, it breaks the sensitive balance of power between citizens and state.

By AVNER PINCHUK
October 30, 2011 21:22
3 minute read.
Biometric fingerprint [illustrative]

Biometric fingerprint identity 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

 
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Last week, after almost five years on the case, authorities located and arrested the suspects that publicized private information on the Internet about Israelis stolen from the Population Registry. Investigators were surprised to learn that not only was the entire Population Registry leaked, but so was other sensitive material such as the national adoption database, which stores details on adopting parents, adopted children, biological parents, etc. The Ministry of Justice described the damage done to the country and its residents as “severe.” This case has called attention to the dangers all the country’s citizens face if someone were to get their hands on the biometric database which the government is set to begin piloting in the coming days.

The “Identification Card, Travel Papers and Biometric Database Bill,” passed in 2009, is meant to provide a reliable, “smart” system that includes biometric data, such as fingerprints and digital photographs, in identification cards and passports. The biometric data will also be concentrated in a database system maintained by the Interior Ministry.

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A biometric database is not the only mechanism for maintaining a trustworthy and protected system for issuing biometric identification.

With such a database, the potential for abuse of power and information is extremely high. This is the reason many democratic countries are very hesitant about inaugurating such systems. In Germany, for example, the government created passports with biometric certificates, but chose not to store those details in a central government database, in large part due to the historical lessons learned in that country.

Once a biometric database is in place, if there was any kind of leak such as the one that took place last week, there would not even be a point in conducting an investigation, since the damage to individual citizens would be “irreparable,” as the Interior Ministry has already admitted.

Despite this fact, the Interior Ministry is leading a campaign to convince the Israeli public to participate in its pilot by volunteering to submit their information. Those championing the database claim that as opposed to the current system, the biometric database will be secure. I don’t buy it.

Aside from the potential security risks and irreversible damage that would be caused should such information be leaked, the fundamental problem the biometric database raises is that its very establishment and existence in the hands of the government is a severe infringement of the right to privacy and of the democratic structure.



Databases are a resource for power and control. The question is not merely whether the state will be able to safeguard this resource, but is also a philosophical one: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, or “who will watch the watch-guards?” As is the case with so many projects, even when public databases are established for narrow and limited purposes, they very quickly become a target of constant pressure from public and private entities, which leads to the extensive use and abuse of the information for unintended purposes. It happens time and again with databases the government establishes.

In the case of the biometric database the “creeping of function” occurs even before it is established: until now the police have only had the prints of suspects and criminals on record, but with a biometric database in place, the police will have access to the every single citizen’s fingerprints, thereby turning every citizen into a “suspect.”

When a government holds too much information on its citizens, it breaks the sensitive balance of power between citizens and state. The tremendous power of the “surveillance society” is not necessarily based on actual surveillance, but the fact that an individual knows the state maintains and controls his personal information and can monitor him at any time create a state of constant fear and distrust.

The writer runs the Privacy Rights program at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

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