Persuaded by critics' concerns, Yishai allows more debate on plan for national identity data base

Interior Minister Eli Yishai. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Sensitive to calls by academics and information security experts that a data base of citizens' pictures and fingerprints might be misused, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he would hear additional opinions before implementing the biometric law.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai.Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai.Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski [file]

He also said he would consider changes to it after it passed in the Knesset.

The controversial law was the topic of a conference organized Wednesday by the Israeli Forum for Information Security (IFIS) and the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, which featured Yishai, Government Services Minister Michael Eitan - the bill's sponsor - former interior minister Meir Sheetrit and a panel of experts.

Dr. Karine Barzilai-Nahon, a researcher from the University of Washington, presented findings of a recent study she made, which showed that if the biometric law were implemented, Israel would be the only democratic country in the world to have a mandatory biometric registry of all of its citizens.

While other democracies have different types of biometric databases of fingerprints and pictures of faces, she said, Israel's would be the most comprehensive and the only one where people would be required by law to submit their information.

The reason Israel is different is because it is one of the only democratic countries that requires its citizens to carry national identification cards.

"The only country to have a similar database is Hong Kong, and there it was only temporary," said Barzilai-Nahon.

Her research has found that public dissent was the main reason other countries didn't have the same sort of database.

Retired general Ya'acov Amidror, IFIS's president, explained that the conference's goal was to increase public debate on a topic that had received too little attention, and to address three important questions: Does Israel need a biometric database? Assuming there is such a database, how can its security be assured? And how should use of such a database be regulated?

"If the public feels that there are good answers to these three questions…. I think people will feel better about the existence of such a database, which holds our most intimate details," said Amidror.

Prof. Shimon Schocken, head of the IDC's School of Computer Science, said that the way the law was being passed in the Knesset looked like underhanded opportunism.

He said that planners of the law didn't consult with its opponents from academia, some of whom, he said, are "world-renowned experts."

"Where were you during the committee discussions?" retorted Sheetrit, in response to Schocken's statement. "This is one of the laws in which the deliberations were the most comprehensive and serious. No one from academia showed up."

Sheetrit said that the committee he chaired consulted top-ranking experts before approving the proposal and that many changes were made along the way.

Sheetrit, who initiated the biometric bill when he was interior minister in the last government, said that it was necessary to move over to biometrically secured identification cards because Israel's current IDs are among the worst in the world.

"Even the Palestinian documentation is of a higher standard and offers more security," he said.

"According to police numbers, there are 350,000 people in Israel who have fake identities," said Sheetrit. "Who are these people? Not Jews or the children of Jews, not Israelis or their children. It's all sorts of riffraff like thieves and criminals, smugglers and terrorists."

Sheetrit said that police report on tens of thousands of crimes committed using fake identities. "People don't understand that individuals' safety and privacy are in danger today and that biometric protection will help them," he said.

Sheetrit said that there was no opposition to the idea that identity documents need to be replaced. He tried to alleviate concerns over a biometric database by presenting the safeguards that the bill puts in place - to prevent both external hacking and misuse by the authorities.

He explained that only a small group of specially screened people would ever have physical access to the database, as part of an Interior Ministry unit formed specifically for the task. The database would be split into two parts, one containing the biometric information - photos and fingerprints - and the other with the names and identification numbers.

Both, he said, would be strictly encrypted and would only be used together under specific conditions specified in the bill.

What the bill actually says is that a court can order the release of information from the database only in cases where all other avenues of investigation were found insufficient and if the judge were convinced the case was of vital public importance.

Under certain conditions the police can also pass on information to security services, the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, state prosecutors and foreign law enforcement agencies.

Sheetrit said Israel already had large biometric databases, kept by the military, Border Control, the Defense Ministry, the Population Administration and even by employment centers. "I haven't seen anyone try to hack into any of them," he said.

Eitan spoke mostly about his concerns over the way the bill was passed in committee. He criticized Sheetrit for pushing many of the bill's clauses through committee with only one vote - his own - and disapproved of the repeated referral to security demands in order to silence pertinent questions from opponents.

"Shame on the state whose parliament doesn't debate secret matters through the proper channels. This method corrupts security elements - they will abuse it," said Eitan.

Civil rights lawyer Haim Ravia expressed concern over what he perceived as vagueness and ambiguity in some sections of the bill.

"It is not exactly clear what the database will be used for," said Ravia. "I'm worried that in time it will be too readily available and commonly used."

Ravia said he was especially concerned over the use of photos, as they could be used for identification without the person being identified even knowing it. "With fingerprints you have to be with the authorities for them to identify you, but with facial recognition programs, you'll never know about it."

Yishai was last to speak. He said that after listening to all that was said, he wasn't afraid to change his mind.

"I am convinced that the public does not know enough about the implications of forming this database, for better or for worse," said Yishai. "I am open to the formation of a team of experts in the field of information security, who will sit and raise any ideas, in order to rest the minds of a large portion of Israeli society.

"We need to see how we examine and do everything possible that the database will be protected, now and in the future, and that we provide protection to Israeli citizens, making sure the database is not misused."

The biometric bill, which was approved by the government and has already passed a first reading in the Knesset, is expected to pass final readings when the Knesset returns from its summer break, after Succot.