All Israelis Will Have to Join Biometric Database From Next Year, Minister Says

In event marking millionth person to sign on, Interior Minister Dery says after end of pilot phase, all passports, ID cards will be biometric; 'I can say with certainty that this is a secure database.'

Biometric passport control system at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Biometric passport control system at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Tomer Appelbaum

Interior Minister Arye Dery announced on Thursday that starting next year, joining the biometric database will be obligatory.

“From now on anyone obtaining a document from the Interior Ministry, whether an ID card or a passport, will receive a biometric one. We’ve decided on having this database and we’ll soon decide what will be included in it,” Dery said at a ceremony marking the millionth person to join the biometric database, which was held at the new Population and Immigration Authority office in south Tel Aviv.

“Israel is joining many other countries around the world which have concluded that their citizens should have smart and secure documentation. With all the attempts by various organizations to steal identities, it’s important to have a smart and reliable document,” Dery added. At the end of the ceremony he issued himself one.

“I’m not sure I’m the millionth, but we’re close. I’m issuing one for myself since I don’t have one yet. It’s the right and safe thing to do – there is nothing to worry about. There is nothing more secure than this database. People can remain calm, I can say with certainty – we have a secure database. Everything we do is for the benefit of our citizens,” he declared.

During the third quarter of 2015 there was a sharp drop in the number of people signing up. Only one quarter of people taking out new documents in that period opted for biometric ones. The Population Authority released data showing that between last November and May there was a rise in these numbers, with 31 percent opting for biometric documentation.

The rate of people choosing biometric documents goes up with age, except for people who are 80 years old or older. There are gender differences, with somewhat more men who signed up during the pilot phase. Twenty-four percent of people who signed on never returned to pick them up. From August, these documents will be mailed to people for whom they were issued.

The pilot phase began in July 2013 and was supposed to end after two years. However, it was extended twice. Former Interior Minister Silvan Shalom assumed his post a month and a half before the end of the pilot, and requested more time to study the issue. The Knesset approved his request and extended the pilot by nine months, ending in March of this year.

After Shalom’s departure, Dery was appointed minister in mid-January. At his request, the Knesset again extended the pilot by nine months, until the end of 2016. Dery will have to decide in the coming months what should be done with this database. He clarified that he wouldn’t annul it but would make it compulsory to sign on. It is still unclear, however, which data will be conserved in the database. In any case, approval by the Knesset plenary is required for this move.

The main objective of the biometric database is to prevent the forging of ID cards and passports, prohibiting anyone from assuming a false identity. The database includes high-resolution facial photos and the prints of applicants’ two index fingers. By law, the biometric data is stored in a secure database with limited access. Only an encrypted code enables the linking of the data to the personal details of any person.

Senior Interior Ministry officials said they are now looking at different models for the database. One option is to include only a facial photograph. “That’s a good option for people who are reluctant to provide fingerprints, but its effectiveness is lower. Faces change over time, and people often choose to wear head covering while taking their photos. Such passports will therefore be issued for shorter durations. This will cause people to be hassled by appearing more frequently at our offices as well as imposing a greater burden on our employees. Another option is to make the provision of fingerprints compulsory, but this will evoke opposition.”

In internal discussions, Dery has been looking at a third way that combines the two – in this option a facial photo will be compulsory and the fingerprints voluntary. This may encourage people to give their fingerprints. “When people learn that passports with fingerprints will be issued for longer periods of 10 years instead of three to five years without fingerprinting, most people will provide their prints.”

Opponents of the database argue that there is a high risk of sensitive information leaking out. They suggest making do with smart documents that will contain the biometric data, rather than holding it in a centralized storage site. Opponents also recommend more intense questioning by the Population Authority at the time documents are issued, to minimize the risk of identity theft.

Attorney Yehonatan Klinger, the legal adviser of the Movement for Digital Rights, says, “We claim that this database is unnecessary, since people rarely lose documents that can prove their identity. There is no need for a database that will store fingerprints – identities can be verified without this. We’ll do our utmost so that the interior minister makes the right decision and halts the establishment of this database.”