Officials Bicker Over Biometric Database's Safety

With much debate, Israel began implementing its biometric database program Monday.

David Lev ,

Gideon Sa'ar
Gideon Sa'ar
Flash 90

A pilot program for Israel's biometric database got off the ground Monday, with the program available for residents of Rishon Lezion and Ashdod. Residents of these towns can go to their local Population Registry offices, submit their fingerprints and have their photos taken by a special camera that will analyze their facial characteristics, and be issued a smart identity card. The program will eventually be expanded to most of Israel's large cities.

The benefit for Israelis, according to Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, is that they will receive an identity card that will be next to impossible to duplicate, and will put a stop to instances of identity theft and fake ID cards. A Sa'ar and other supporters of the project, tens of thousands of illegal works and illegal PA Arabs are using phony ID cards, either totally fabricated or using real information about Israelis. The plethora of phony cards constitutes a major security threat, Sa'ar said at a ceremony Monday officially opening the project, and the biometric database will solve the problem.

The new program is voluntary, and is a pilot program designed to allow officials to determine if there are any problems with the biometric system. The program has been a controversial one; the law authorizing implementation of the biometric database was passed in 2009, but was challenged immediately by activists and privacy groups, as well as numerous MKs.

Among the reasons for opposition to the program, which will gather intimate details on Israelis, is the possibility that the data could be stolen, or even worse, used by the government to impose controls on individuals by limiting their access to services, and tracking them using biometric information.

“The information will be well protected and will prevent identity theft,” Sa'ar said. Regarding the fears that the information could be used in a negative manner, Sa'ar said that “there is no basis for the panic that has taken hold of some. I recommend that all Israelis take out a smart ID card.”

Disagreeing with Sa'ar was Labor Party head MK Shelly Yechimovich, who said that implementation of the program would cause “irreversible damage” to Israel. “You can cancel credit cards that have been stolen, you can change a password that has been compromised, but you cannot change your fingerprints and face,” she said, pointing out the risks in holding such information in a database that would be a major attraction for hackers. “We all know that it is just a matter of time before corporations or hostile forces get hold of this information. The information will no doubt be used in a negative manner and will endanger many Israelis, such as IDF soldiers who will also have to give over their details in the program.”

The current program is voluntary, and will continue in that capacity for at least two years, at which time the government will decide whether or not to make it mandatory. Speaking Monday, former government minister Michael Eitan, an ardent opponent of the program, suggested that people simply ignore the system and refuse to register. “This is a struggle for the image of the state of Israel,” he said. “Will we be a free people that ensures privacy for its citizens, like other advanced countries, or will we become the leading 'police state,' keeping a constant watch on citizens. I see absolutely no reason to participate in it and become the government's 'guinea pigs' in a project that will not do anything positive for Israel – not for the country, its citizens, or its security,” Eitan said.