Defense officials who call controversial biometric database safe, possibly told not to sign up

those criticizing the pilot program demanded statistics about how much identity theft had occurred before the program, how much had occurred during the program and how many indictments had been filed

A man has his fingerprint scanned [file] (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man has his fingerprint scanned [file]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The same security agencies officials that have certified the state’s new experimental and controversial biometric identity cards database as properly safeguarding citizens’ private information were possibly instructed not to sign up themselves, it arose in a stormy session of the Knesset State Control Committee on Monday.
In a session that saw committee chairwoman Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) having to frequently yell-down parties who tried to interrupt each other, there was an extended pause after a representative of the Prime Minister’s Office said he did not know whether security agencies personnel had been instructed not to sign up for the database.
Elharar repeated the question, asking if anyone among the many security officials present could confirm or deny the allegation.
Yoav Zacks, head of the technology division of an anti-terrorism agency, did not confirm or deny the allegation, but left the question open by saying that he was “not familiar with an instruction to security officials not to register for the database, but anyway registration at this time is only voluntary.”
The meeting came after Interior Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) last week preempted a critical report of the biometric database pilot by announcing he was extending the program for a nine-month trial period.
Shalom’s decision came only hours before a report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira was released with a critical conclusion that the pilot program has failed many of its benchmarks, and that the Knesset should think hard before making the database a permanent fixture.
Major deficiencies highlighted by Shapira include the absence of information about how well the database has prevented identity theft; the use of a defective process for scanning fingerprints; the use of a temporary and flawed database system and method of comparing the system’s results that cannot be used in the long-term; and failure to consider alternative solutions to prevent identity theft.
Identity cards linked to the biometric database include far more personal information, such as a person’s fingerprints and a facial scan, to make it more difficult to falsify or steal the cards.
The phenomenon of forging false identity cards led the Knesset to authorize the pilot in 2009.
The authority for managing the database was established in August 2011 and the pilot was launched on June 30, 2013, with 430,000 volunteers registering for the biometric card in the first year alone, eventually reaching more than 700,000 volunteers.
All registration for the program has been voluntary until now, and its continuation has been an open question, because of its nature as a pilot program and due to concerns that abuse of the more personal information stored in the cards could lead to grave privacy issues.
Throughout Monday’s meeting, officials from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, the Biometric Database Management Authority, the police and others were slammed by Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, Committee lawyer Tomer Rosner, most of the other MKs in attendance and by a range of experts on cyber security and privacy issues.
Those criticizing the pilot program demanded statistics about how much identity theft had occurred before the program, how much had occurred during the program, and how many indictments had been filed.
Police and biometric authority officials tried to change the subject to a range of other, more general, statistics showing requests to change identity cards in more than 1,133,000 cases between 2004 and 2013, of which 35 percent involved “criminal offenders,” according to police.
Elharar demanded that the government present the statistics requested within one month.
Another point that arose was that many other countries that have addressed the identity theft issue have used “smart” identity cards and few, if any, states have gone all the way to using an obligatory biometric database.
The program’s critics demanded that the government justify why the program was considered a necessity in comparison to just having “smart” identity cards, especially in light of the many criticisms in Shapira’s report.
Despite a biometric authority official’s response that it was much easier to forge a “smart” identity card than one connected to the new biometric program, Elharar concluded that the responses were insufficient and that the personal information in the databases was in danger of “coming into the possession of bad persons.”
Accordingly, she urged the government to delay for 30 days a vote anticipated late Monday to grant Shalom’s request for a nine-month extension to review the pilot program further.