Israel's Biometric Database Going Online Despite Leaks, Concerns

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Israel is expected to announce on Monday the launch of a controversial national experiment in operating a biometric database.

The two-year pilot program will allow citizens to receive smart-ID cards by submitting their biometric data – fingerprints and facial contours – to Interior Ministry offices across the country. The pilot, which will start in Rishon Letzion and Ashdod, will remain voluntary throughout the two-year period, during which the ministry will issue old-style ID cards to those who decline to submit their biometric data.

The purported advantage of the database is that it will make it easier to identify citizens and harder to commit identity theft. The Interior Ministry is slated to demonstrate the process of submitting biometric data on Monday at a press conference in Rishon Letzion, where Interior Minsiter Gideon Saar will make the announcement.

Michael Eitan, a former minister known to be strongly opposed to the biometric database, on Sunday slammed the decision to launch the pilot.

“It’s a struggle for the State of Israel’s image,” he said. “Will we be a free country, protecting civilians’ privacy as enlightened nations in the world do, or will we turn into the leading country in spying on its citizens?” Eitan added, “I don’t see any reason for Israeli citizens to turn into test rabbits in a project that won’t do anything for the state of Israel, its citizens or its security.”

The initiative was to begin two years ago, but legal battles, including a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel rejected by the High Court of Justice and a labor dispute between Population Registry employees and the Finance Ministry that ended a few weeks ago, held it up.

“It’s a dangerous experiment with human beings,” warned Yonatan Klinger, the legal adviser to the Movement for Digital Rights, which opposes the database. “After enlightened nations in the world canceled similar projects, Israel continues to insist on being the leading democracy in the world in spying on its citizens. Israel’s citizens need to know that whoever lends a hand to the biometric database risks his privacy and joins a process that is liable to endanger the country’s security.”

Despite various promises about unprecedented security for the database to prevent leaks, Haaretz and Channel 10 revealed at the beginning of this month that one of the central components of the experiment, the national certificate authority project, lacks proper security. The project does not directly involve biometric data, but rather the digital certificates that allow citizens to be identified by government services. The project is responsible for securely issuing electronic IDs, which will be integrated with physical cards.

According to Israel’s e-government website, “Through electronic authentication certificates, it will be possible to be identified before information systems and online services requiring ‘hard authentication’ of the user. The authentication apparatus constitutes an alternative to a user name and password.”

A mock Israeli ID.Credit: Mimshal Zamin website

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