Meir Sheetrit
Meir Sheetrit Photo by Tess Scheflan
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A special Knesset committee yesterday approved the regulations and administrative order pertaining to the establishment of a biometric database containing information on all Israeli citizens. Only two MKs attended the meeting of the special joint committee of the Knesset Interior and Environment; Science and Technology; and Constitution, Law and Justice committees, which then approved the order for a pilot project for two years starting November 11, 2011.

The two parliamentarians, who both voted in favor, were the chairman of the special committee, MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ), and MK Avraham Michaeli (Shas ). MK Zeev Elkin (Likud ) was present for part of the meeting, but did not vote.

The Population Registry at the Interior Ministry is expected to begin a widespread public relations campaign explaining the new biometric database and law. Committee members made a number of changes to the proposed law to increase supervision of data and protect privacy.

Sheetrit informed the committee that the session would only relate to the regulations pertaining to the operation of the database and not to the law itself, which was passed by the Knesset in December 2009.

Three other MKS are members of the committee, but they did not attend the meeting. The three are Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi ), Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Zion Fanian (Likud ). This was not the first time there was such limited attendance at the joint committee meetings, and many other votes were taken with similar voting numbers. In any case, the committee was made up of only supporters of the new law, said MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ), who is a fierce opponent of the law - and is not a member of the committee.

Sheetrit said similar databases existed in a large number of countries and there was no justification to frighten citizens over the law.

The new regulations approved yesterday include processes for identifying citizens, how the biometric information will be collected, arrangements for protecting the data and accommodations for religious limitations.

For the first two years, only those citizens who voluntarily agree to join the pilot will have their data collected. Minors may also volunteer. Those citizens who agree will be given new identification documents with the biometric information.

The original law passed a year and a half ago in a late-night Knesset session after a compromise was reached delaying its implementation by two years, during which a partial and non-compulsory database would be established. At the time, 40 MKs voted in favor with 11 against.

The law as originally proposed required the collection of fingerprint and facial recognition data for all citizens, with all Israelis to receive new identification cards and passports containing the biometric data on a chip. But harsh criticism based on concerns that the data would leak out to criminal or other shady elements lead to the compromise with a two-year trial period.

Following the trial period, the interior minister can invoke the full law and require citizens to provide their biometric data, or can extend the pilot phase for another two years. At the end of the four years, the minister can still choose not to implement the law, in which case all the biometric data will be erased permanently.