Consumer privacy expert:
Biometric identification database 'far from secure'

'I am always skeptical when government officials claim that tracking technology they wield will help keep citizens safe.'

Mordechai Sones,

Liz McIntyre
Liz McIntyre
Liz McIntyre

Arutz Sheva spoke about Israel's new biometric identification database law with consumer privacy expert Liz McIntyre, co-author with Dr. Katherine Albrecht of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move, and who works as a consultant for and, privacy-based services to help protect consumers against surveillance.

The Israeli Knesset passed a new law that mandates identity cards which include more advanced ways of keeping track of people and make it easier to store identities and share information between agencies and governments. It is presented as a good thing, a way to track missing or lost persons, and to aid in law-enforcement. What could be the problems or dangers of mandating biometric identification?

"With any kind of tracking technology that is introduced, all the positives are put forward towards adoption, a lot of times using scare tactics, like, 'This database is for when people go missing', or, 'To make sure that we know who you are for your bank account', those kind of things, but very few of the downsides are brought forward.

"Of course, this law is talking about putting biometric information in a database, and we know from the recent past that databases are far from being secure. This is even more of a problem for biometric information, because it links directly to a person, and it's supposed to be an even better proxy for an individual.

"Imagine that this data gets in the hands of a hacker, for example, who can use this - I understand that this is going to be stored digitally - the hacker can take this information and pose even more believably as an individual, perhaps accessing a bank account or other accounts. So I have serious concern any time information is placed in a database, but particularly with biometrics information.

"In addition, the problem with biometric information is that it can be tracked across multiple devices, and for multiple reasons. So, not only would this be say, on an identity card, perhaps, but if this information is shared, let's say someone is signing into a mobile device or even a desktop computer using a fingerprint, that's a way to uniquely identify someone, not only on one computer but on multiple devices - pretty much anywhere. And so, then you're making people even more traceable, which is really a bad idea for privacy."

I'll play the devil's advocate and just say, "That might be something that would bother criminals, but I, who have no criminal intention, I'm just a law-abiding citizen, why should I care whether the government - who, after all, are there only to protect me in any case - why should I care if they have this information and share it?

"In our book Spychips we have an entire chapter about how governments are the most deadly force on the planet. More people have been killed by their own governments than by all the wars combined. And so I would say to you that if you have to be concerned about somebody or an entity, you really need to be concerned about your government.

"Now, the government works for us, and we have to support the government. The government is about the people. But we also have to put controls on the government so somebody doesn't have all the power over us. Surveillance has a chilling effect on free speech, for example, on citizen's behavior - if you know you're being watched and monitored, you're much more careful about what you're going to say, and if you oppose the government in power, then you're going to be even more concerned about, 'Wow, they're going to know exactly who I am, I'm online, they know who I am, who's saying this,' and so on and so forth. So, for a democracy, being more traceable by your own government is a really bad idea."

When legislators pass laws that make it easier for governments to surveil their citizens, are those legislators themselves aware of what they're doing, do they understand all the implications you just spoke about - or were they simply coerced or convinced by special interests, lobbyists, or maybe other government agencies?

"In my experience, when I've spoken to people who have taken steps to track people with unique identification devices, they hadn't really thought through everything. They don't have nefarious motives, most people, and when I approach them and say, 'Have you thought about what this could mean?', frankly, most of them had not thought about the implications. And when you talk to them about it they say, 'Wow, that's a good point.'

"I am concerned though that, generally speaking, the technology industry, particularly the industries surrounding the tracking of people through advertising or other databases - those people are very interested in biometric identification because it makes their jobs so much easier. They would be able to find out if somebody is in any kind of device if it requires a biometric identification, or if they're in storage perhaps, this kind of information could be used if, say, electronic payments require a fingerprint. So it could be that there are some people who are doing this for political or business reasons, but I think a lot of people are just naive about the danger of this kind of thing."

In Spychips, McIntyre references the work of Professor R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii, who devoted his life to researching what he termed "democide," the killing of people by their own governments. There, she writes, "Hundreds of millions of people have been slaughtered in cold blood by the very authorities that were supposed to be in charge of protecting them. In fact, in the twentieth century, people's own governments were four times more deadly than all the century's wars combined."

In this context, McIntyre responds to Israel's passage of its new biometric identification database law: "You can see why I am always skeptical when government officials claim that tracking technology they wield will help keep citizens safe."

Until citizens awaken to the dangers inherent in the new law and demand its rectification, what steps can conscious people take to safeguard their privacy and liberty?

"They will need to be even more watchful of identity theft and cases of impersonation with laws like this because biometric credentials cannot be changed once they have been compromised. People cannot simply change their fingerprints or get new faces."