Big Brother Atmosphere at Israel's Biometric Roll-out

The launch of the biometric database on Monday in Rishon Letzion was festive and emotional for the Interior Ministry officials in attendance.

In a way, it was reminiscent of the euphoria before a military operation that’s doomed to fail. I don’t mean to be a party pooper, but isn’t it obvious that in Israel, the database will leak within a few years?

Outside the offices, several demonstrators were protesting, including my friend Yonatan Klinger, who is obsessive about the issue. You’d have to be pretty passionate to drive to a rally in Rishon Letzion in the afternoon heat. Klinger was busy preparing a poster that read, “Don’t join the expeiment” − without an “r.” As an objective journalist, I didn’t point out the spelling mistake.

In the Interior Ministry hall, photographers gathered around Revital Green, the photogenic director of personnel, who was posing giving her fingerprint. Her ministry friends were enthusiastically photographing the photographers photographing her. “Post this on Facebook,” Green demanded. I told her she was “the state’s finger,” and she loved it. “Good thing I did my fingernails today,” she said.

“Of course I’m excited, I’ve already issued myself an ID,” said Odelia Shtefal, an outgoing official. “It’s a safer ID. The public is enthusiastic. Many ask when they can get one. I believe 90 percent of the public will agree.”

Suddenly, someone, probably a spokesperson or senior official, burst in, saw the photography orgy, and became enraged. “Get up, please,” she ordered Revital, instantly putting an end to her good mood. The photographers were also remonstrated for crossing the counter line.

“Nobody comes in here; it’s forbidden.” When the official left, the photographers crossed back over the counter line and continued snapping photos.

When the press conference started, I found myself seated between an Interior Ministry official named Yoram, who supports the establishment of the database, and a journalist, who opposes it and who kept whispering information to me that contradicted what the ministry officials were saying in their speeches.

The Interior Ministry’s attitude toward critics of the biometric database seemed to be more or less: Grow up. When the journalists raised questions, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar criticized the journalists’ critical questions, saying they seemed more like opinion.

Klinger warns me that if Israel goes ahead with the project, it will be the only country in the world with a compulsory national biometric database. But my new pal Yoram raises the winning argument: terror. The London 2005 terrorist had four real passports, he says.

On the other hand, there was one thing I clearly learned from the press conference. As enthusiastic as all the speakers were, if there is a leak, nobody will take responsibility. One of the excited low-level officials will be fired.

Sa’ar stressed that going ahead with the program wasn’t his call, but the Knesset’s. When asked if the system is 100 percent leak-proof, he said, “I can’t promise, but I can promise the best minds are being employed.”

Tomer Appelbaum