Ethics @ Work: Biometric big brother

Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, with the backing ofmany members of the Israeli law enforcement establishment, is trying toput his proposed "biometric identification document" law on a fasttrack to Knesset approval (this means speeding up the reading process).The proposed law includes some real solutions to real problems, butalso elements that seem to create more problems than they solve.

One problem the law is meant to solve is that of forged identity cards.

Sheetrit claims that there are hundreds of thousands of peopleusing such forged cards, sometimes for obtaining entry and employmentin Israel and sometimes for obtaining fraudulent benefits. The solutionprovided by the law is simple and effective: to distribute electronic"smart cards", like those used in many other countries. Such cardswould be much more difficult to forge in the first place, and couldinclude a variety of techniques to make forgeries easy to detect. Itwould also provide the convenience of making them easy to read - thecard could be swiped.

A further problem that is worth solving is that of stolen or borrowed cards.

Somepeople may want to help others masquerade as Israelis, or as innocentIsraelis rather than wanted criminals or the like. I don't imaginethere are hundreds of thousands of these, but there may be thousands.This is a smaller problem with a more expensive fix, but the fix stillseems plausibly worth the price: include biometric information on thecard. Each person obtaining an ID card could have its fingerprintsscanned, and the digitized information would be added to the smartcard. If there was ever any doubt if the person bearing a card wasactually the person named on it, law enforcement officials could takefingerprints and see if they match the information on the chip.

The third thing the law proposes is to require the InteriorMinistry to save all this information in a unified data bank. In otherwords, the government would have a centralized data base of allcitizens' names, ID numbers, and biometric information. Now thecost/benefit calculation becomes very lopsided. The "problem" thiswould presumably solve is if you have someone in front of you, hedoesn't have an ID card, and you want to know his identity. The database would enable you to take his fingerprints and uniquely find hisidentity. What problem does this solve? If someone is arrested for acrime you can already take his fingerprints, and if he has committed acrime in the past his fingerprints are already on file.

How often do law enforcement officials have alegitimate interest in rapid identification of people who have nocriminal record? Not hundreds of thousands of instance, not eventhousands. It must be a rare occasion - perhaps demonstratorsexercising their democratic right to protest government actions? So theup-side of this legislation seems quite minimal.

What about the downside? The first downside is the cost.Creating, administering and particularly securing a data base cost lotsof money. It's hard to see how the minimal benefit really justifiesthis.

Another important downside is the loss of privacy. It is truethat biometric information is not the worst breach of privacy; theworst breaches are those that link a person's identity with privateinformation. An example would be the ability to find out if someone hasa criminal record, what his income is, personal status etc. (The mostextreme instance is Britain's proposed IMP law, which would linkpeople's identity with their phone calls - a veritable invitation tofishing expeditions.) Just being able to identify a person from hisfingerprints is less of a problem.

However, consider the unique problems of such a data base. Anydata base can be compromised. So a key question is, what is thedownside of a breach? For example, every so often there are newsreports of thousands of credit card numbers being stolen; probablyactual cases are many times more common.

Whenever this happens, all the cardholders have to change theirnumbers. But there is no fix for breaches of a biometric data base. Youcan't ask seven million people to change their fingerprints.

The worst aspect of the new law is that it would include facialfeatures as a biometric identifier. This would greatly multiply thepotential for nefarious uses (identifying demonstrators usingphotographs; criminals using it to identify subjects of interest etc.)with virtually no contribution to legitimate uses - if you have theperson in front of a law enforcement official you can take hisfingerprints.

Introducing smart ID cards with a chip is a cheap fix to anexpensive problem. Including biometric information on the chip is amore expensive fix to a cheaper problem, but it still seems reasonable.Creating a centralized data base of biometric information on everyIsraeli citizen seems indefensible if the biometric information is"active" (like fingerprints or better yet palm prints) andunconscionable if it is of the passive kind, like facial features. IfSheetrit thinks he can make his case to the Israeli people I'm willingto let him, but by no means should such far-reaching legislation be ona fast track.

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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Centerof Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College ofTechnology (Machon Lev).