Biometric Big Brother Is Here

The creation of a biometric database raises concerns about invasion of privacy

Meir Sheetrit (photo credit: Miiam Alster)
Meir Sheetrit
(photo credit: Miiam Alster)
In early June, a special Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice and Science and Technology subcommittee, charged with reviewing the regulations and administrative arrangements pertaining to the establishment of a biometric database containing information on the citizens of Israel, finally got around to voting on the first practical step towards setting up the database. The committee approved an order for a pilot biometric gathering project slated to last two years, beginning this November.
Biometric identification recognizes individuals based on one or more physiological aspects of a person’s body, such as fingerprints, face recognition, DNA, palm geometry, or iris recognition, all of which are unique to each individual. It is considered by many to be nearly foolproof because it does not depend on an identity card that can be forged. But like a double-edged sword, the very strength of biometric databases also poses dangers of invasion of privacy and identification theft.
The initial phase of the implementation of the biometric law is a pilot program in which only citizens who volunteer to provide biometric information to the interior ministry will partake. Volunteers will be given new identification documents containing their biometric information. After the pilot trial period, the Interior minister will have several options: extending the pilot another two years, halting the implementation of the law, or requiring all citizens to provide biometric data, with no right of refusal.
The creation of a national biometric database was first proposed by Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) when he was Interior Minister in Ehud Olmert’s government in the years 2007 to 2009. Despite a tremendous public debate, in which opponents expressed concerns about the use of a biometric database as an invasion of privacy, the Knesset passed a law approving the creation of such a database in December 2009 by a vote of 40-11.
The special Knesset subcommittee was established to study and approve details related to implementing the new law. Among the subjects it looked into were the timetable for setting up the database, and methods to secure the data.
Only two Knesset Members bothered to show up for the subcommittee’s vote approving the pilot program. Sheetrit, the chairman, and MK Avraham Michaeli (Shas) voted in favor of the pilot. MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) attended the initial part of the meeting, but left before the vote. Three other committee members, Zion Fanian (Likud), Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) and Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu) did not attend the session. No quorum was required for the vote, and it was held despite the fact that most of the subcommittee was not present.
The subject of biometric information is one that raises both expectations and fears. Establishing personal identity is extremely important for many purposes. Maintaining honest voter rolls, to take only one example, requires ensuring that only registered voters cast ballots, and that they each do so only once. Law enforcement and anti-terrorist units need some way of identifying certain individuals, and non-governmental institutions, such as banks, also seek ways to be certain that cash they give out goes to customers and not crooks.
Opponents of a national biometric database, who include Michael Eitan – a Likud member who was minister of science and technology in the late 1990s and is now Minister of Improvement of Government Services – and MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) paint the initiative as a potential challenge to liberties. Voices have been raised warning that the concentration of information made available to the government by such a database would be a step towards the creation of a “surveillance”society in which anyone’s moves could be tracked effortlessly by authorities, and that information leaked from a government-run database falling into the wrong hands would enable terrorists abroad to strike at Israelis. Average citizens could be framed by criminals planting false “biometric clues” at crime scenes.
Avner Pinchuk, legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, stated in an appearance before the subcommittee that the proposed Israeli database is unprecedented in scope, and that there are “no mandatory biometric databases in any democratic country.” Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, tells The Report, however, that according to research conducted by the Interior Ministry, several countries have established or are in the process of establishing biometric databases similar in scope to the one planned for Israel, including Mexico, Switzerland, Finland, and India, which has the largest such database in the world. In addition, Israel is the only country within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) yet to issue a biometric passport.
Allowing people to choose initially whether they wish or not to participate in the biometric database is a way of feeling out how much opposition the bulk of the populace has to biometric identification, without coercion. If major problems arise, there will still be opportunity to reconsider the measure. On the other hand, if all goes smoothly, others may feel more secure with giving their biometric details to a government agency.
However, it is still unclear how volunteers will be persuaded to step forward or if any incentives will be offered. At least one non-coerced biometric database already exists in Israel – the palm-recognition machines installed in the passport control area at Ben-Gurion Airport. Those who sign up to use the machines and provide their biometric details benefit from much shorter lines when leaving and entering the country. And with that reward dangled before them, Israelis have shown themselves willing to share biometric information in droves.
(The Airport Authority and the Interior Ministry both declined to provide precise figures on the number of registered users of the palm-recognition service at the airport).