Biometric law ready for final Knesset vote

"350,000 live in Israel with fraudulent documents."

An angry Meir Sheetrit, head of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, on Wednesday blasted critics of a government bill to establish a biometric identification system and data bank, charging that those who said it threatened security were talking "nonsense." Sheetrit told reporters the bill had been approved for second and third reading in the plenum after receiving a green light on Monday night from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and would be brought to a vote soon. Originally, Sheetrit had hoped to bring the legislation for approval before the summer recess, but the opposition filibuster over the "Mofaz Bill" prevented him from doing so. However, the government can summon a special parliamentary session during the recess to pass legislation whenever it wants. There is already a meeting scheduled for Monday to vote on the land reform bill and the Mofaz Bill, and the biometric bill may also be placed on the agenda. It calls for the issuing of new identity cards and passports which will include a micro-processing chip (similar in principle to the one on a credit card) which will contain photos of two fingerprints and the facial contours of each card bearer. At the same time, the government will establish two data banks, one including the name of the card-bearer and the other the pictures of the fingerprints and the facial contours. A code will link each person's information in the two banks so that if data on one of them leaks, it will not be enough to make the connection between the biometric information and the name of the person. According to Sheetrit, "The protection provided for this data bank is among the best in the world. It is protected at a level of 11 on a scale of one to 10." Opponents of the bill, including human rights organizations, accused Sheetrit of bulldozing the legislation through the subcommittee established to prepare it, while other MKs were busy with the budget deliberations. Sheetrit held dozens of meeting lasting eight or nine hours a day where he was the only lawmaker in attendance and and the only one to vote. But Sheetrit said no one had prevented other MKs from participating and that it was common for Knesset committee chairmen to hold meetings without any other legislators present. He added that officials from all the relevant ministries and other government organizations, including the Justice and Interior ministries, the Israel Police, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the Mossad and experts in the field of protecting electronic information, had attended these meetings. Sheetrit said Israel had to take action because the threat to its security from forged documents was critical. "Some 350,000 people are living in Israel today with fraudulent documents," he said. "Tens of thousands of passports are in the hands of foreigners, including Iranians." Critics of the bill cite one or both of its major provisions. Some oppose the use of biometric information. All oppose the establishment of a data bank, primarily out of fear that the information will inevitably be leaked. Sheetrit argued that many countries have data banks today, including Australia, France, Switzerland and Britain. Critics, such as Eli Biham, dean of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's Faculty of Computer Science, say no other country in the world will have a data bank like Israel's. Biham, who attended most of the meetings of Sheetrit's subcommittee, spent Wednesday in the Knesset trying to persuade individual MKs in face-to-face talks to oppose the bill. Sheetrit also argued that there are already four biometric data banks in Israel that use fingerprints for identification. Police have a data bank of some 700,000 individuals, the army has a million fingerprints, Ben-Gurion Airport border officials have 700,000 and the Employment Service has 600,000. He said that none of these data banks was established by law and all those who gave their fingerprints did so voluntarily. The data banks are not protected, he added. Sheetrit, who served in the previous government as interior minister and originally initiated the legislation he is now shepherding through the Knesset as a member of the opposition, rejected criticism from those who said there was no need for the new data bank. These critics argue that it would be enough for the authorities to compare a person's actual fingerprint or facial contours with the fingerprint or facial contour photo stored in the mirco-processing chip on the ID card or passport. But according to Sheetrit, the data bank will prevent anyone from applying for more than one ID card or passport using different names, and allow security forces and the police to identify suspects who refuse to identify themselves or do not carry identification. In addition, no one will be able to access the data bank from the Internet or any other external system, and the ministry will maintain a log of all those who entered the data bank, when, and what information they tapped into.