All Israelis Must Join Biometric Database, Minister Says

If residents opt not to have their fingerprints stored in controversial database, ID will only be valid for five years.

Minister Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016.
Minister Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016. Moti Milrod

All residents of Israel are going to have to join the biometric database, which will include high-resolution facial photos and the fingerprints from both index fingers, Interior Minister Arye Dery announced on Thursday.

Individuals will be able to choose whether to save their fingerprints in the database or only on their identity cards and passports. If they refuse to save their prints in the database, however, identifying documents currently valid for 10 years will be valid only for five.

To date, biometric passports or IDs have been issued to approximately one million Israelis, who agreed to join the database on a volunteer basis. 

The Knesset will have to pass legislation to make the database permanent. A memorandum with an amendment was distributed by the Interior Ministry and the public has 10 days to comment. The ministry expects the legislation to be passed by March.

“I’m convinced this framework constitutes the best possible balance between preserving privacy and the state’s obligation to protect its residents from identity theft,” said Dery, adding he was confident that all necessary measures are being taken to protect people’s privacy, secure the information in the database and prevent it from being exploited.

Once the amendment is passed, the Population and Immigration Authority will stop issuing identity cards and passports without electronic chips. Anyone seeking to renew a passport or replace an identity card will be given a smart version, on which his picture and fingerprints will be stored. This information can be crossed-checked to assure that the bearer of the document is indeed who he says he is. Anyone who tries to obtain documents under another name will be flagged down by the database.

Those opposed to the database are not giving up, and a struggle can be expected in the Knesset and in court. It isn’t clear that Dery has a majority for his bill, since there are coalition members who also object to it. 

The Movement for Digital Rights, meanwhile, has launched a fund-raising campaign to finance a petition to the High Court of Justice if need be. By last night it had managed to raise more than 70 percent of the 60,000 shekels it is seeking.

Opponents claim that the necessity of the database has yet to be proven and warn against the risks it poses should it be hacked or if its information is leaked. Instances of people trying to obtain a second identity are so rare, they say, that it doesn’t justify investing enormous resources, violating privacy and risking sensitive information.

“We’re talking about risks to personal security, threats to national security and violations of privacy,” said Prof. Karine Nahon, an expert on information policy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the University of Washington. “If the database is hacked or leaked, underworld characters could masquerade as you, put your fingerprints at a crime scene and so on. At a higher level, there’s a national risk. If the whole database is leaked you can always be identified as an Israeli.”

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) called on citizens not to provide their fingerprints. 

“I fail to understand how such a reckless move continues to advance, without a responsible interior minister taking steps to stop it,” she said. “The supposed leniency of fingerprints not being mandatory is really a sanction on citizens, a way of thwarting petitions to the High Court of Justice protesting the danger and illegality of the database, and to push more and more citizens into the database while obscuring the risks it entails. When the database leaks and we’re all exposed to dangers, we’ll come looking for Minister Dery, who will be sure to say that everything was secure.”

Since July, employees of the Population and Immigration Authority have actually ceased issuing biometric IDs to protest the excessive workload that the project has generated. The workers are demanding extra pay, but the Finance Ministry has rejected their demands.