Digital World: Getting to know all about you and me

The Biometric Law could make Israel a far less free society.

biometrics 88 (photo credit: )
biometrics 88
(photo credit: )
"Politics and technology don't mix," a wise man once said (that wise man, Michael Zboray, is chief security officer at the Gartner Group). "Governments are good at identifying problems, to raise issues, but it should be up to the free market to figure out the solutions. When politicians get involved in tech issues, it's impossible to keep politics out of it," Zboray told me in a recent interview about computer security in Israel. I think it might be a good idea to have Zboray chat with Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, the driving force behind Israel's "Biometric Law." Originally conceived as a means of preventing use of false identification cards and passports, the law has morphed into a test of civil liberties that many activists and citizens' rights groups believe will make Israel a far less free society. According to the law, all Israeli citizens will be required to submit their fingerprints and facial profiles to Interior Ministry agents or private organizations working on the ministry's behalf. The identification information will be recorded on a special chip in documents such as passport and identity cards. If an individual gets stopped at the airport, for example, the information on the card can be used to check the true ID of its bearer (i.e. if the fingerprint on the card doesn't match the fingerprint on the finger, there may be a problem). Everyone must join the program, and those who don't could be tossed into jail. While it sounds a bit draconian, it should be noted that there are many countries using biometric passports and ID cards. What makes Israel's law different is what happens to the data once it's collected; instead of remaining just on the card, the information will be transmitted to an Interior Ministry database, where it will be stored, the better to "check up" on miscreants and criminals. Along with the biometric information, the "usual" Interior Ministry information will be stored as well - making it very clear, to whomever checks, that you are X, with Y kids, who has entered and exited the country Z times, earns D amount annually, etc. While various safeguards are being built into the system, such as "extra-strong encryption" and requiring a court order for access to the data, police will have access to the database under some circumstances. For example (, during a discussion in a Knesset committee convened to discuss the law (chaired by Sheetrit, himself a former interior minister), the question came up on how to identify individuals who aren't carrying their documents. Thanks to the database, the answer is easy: just check their fingerprint or face profile against the records, and you know everything you need about the person. But should police have legal access to the database under such circumstances? Yes indeed, attorneys for the police said. Sheetrit suggested using the database as a last resort, requiring them to use "other reasonable means" to identify individuals before resorting to the database. That, said the attorneys, would require keeping the individuals detained for hours, creating a huge inconvenience for those who have nothing to hide; besides, defining what those "reasonable means" might be could be a hassle. In the end, Sheetrit reportedly decided not to pursue the issue, because he was convinced that police had no nefarious intentions in wanting to access the database. In a perfect world, where we trusted those who have power in society, the existence of the database itself probably wouldn't matter too much. But we live in an all too imperfect world, says the No2Bio group (, which warns that the database could eventually fall into the wrong hands and be used for the wrong reasons. "Even in the explanatory notes to the bill being promoted by the Interior Ministry that would establish the database, experts warn that the existence of such a database could damage civil liberties, because any leaks could be used by criminals or hostile individuals against citizens," the group says, adding that ensuring sufficient security would send the cost of the project skyrocketing, costing the state many millions of shekels it just doesn't have. In addition, the group says, the information in the database could be used even by authorized parties in the wrong manner, according to the current proposal: "The police will be able to, under court order, request information from the database for investigations into civil violations, as well as criminal ones." That would include, for example, using the information to identify and prosecute individuals who joined a right-wing (or left-wing) protest, on charges of "disturbing the peace." This applies not only to protesters, but also to dog walkers "who do not leash or muzzle their animals properly." In other words, if the cops are out to get you, they'll get you! And it's not just the cops; outside organizations working on behalf of the Interior Ministry will be allowed to collect data, the group says - with your details eventually making their way to your bank, insurance company, employer, etc. The law passed on its first reading last October and is now being evaluated for its second and third readings. Much of the opposition to the law in the Knesset is being led by Likud MK Michael Eitan, chairman of the Knesset Constitutional Committee. He feels the government is moving far too quickly on approving this law; indeed, in other places in the world where such databases are being implemented or contemplated, such as Britain, the debate on the access limitations by authorities to their planned database has been going on for years. While many Israelis are extremely upset about the law, others are less concerned - primarily because the government knows so much about us already. Income? Most salaried Israelis electronically transfer their salaries into their bank accounts anyway, so hiding income is pretty much out of the question. Health? Any Israeli who has gone through the army or national service (and that includes immigrants who applied but were exempted) can rest assured that their medical information is available to whatever hospital or health fund needs it. Identity theft? Well, that is one of the things Sheetrit is very concerned about; he says there are more than 350,000 phony ID cards floating around. But chances are little will change, database or not; computers and card readers can run amok, and police are more likely to rely on their usual "profiling" techniques to determine whether the swarthy fellow standing before them really answers to the name "Gottenshtein." I don't mean to sound racist, but security is a way of life in Israel - out of necessity. Not that I'm happy the Interior Ministry is collecting data about me for their collection, but we can't deny the reality around us. And we have to remember: the people doing the collecting and analyzing are our brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and landsmen. Is that enough? Maybe, maybe not. But as security expert Zboray says, Israel's big advantage over places like India and China is its people. While those countries are training thousands of computer engineers, he says, they're not quite ready to compete with Israeli innovation. "The cultural component fosters a lot of innovation and creativity in Israel, and that cultural component - the people, the Type A personalities with their drive, the fact that they are sensitive to issues like security - is a barrier to competition from India and Eastern Europe, where there is a high quality of talent," Zboray says. We hope - and trust - that we can rely on Israelis' good sense and the "strong cultural component" (i.e. that we're all Israelis and/or Jews, facing the same dangers, etc.) to push them to keep our information safe.