State Comptroller Asks to Postpone Biometric Database Legislation, Citing ‘Fundamental Problems’

Shapira asks for information on what has been done to fix the faults in the project, even though Biometric Authority says it already reported all have been fixed

Tomer Appelbaum

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has warned that he has found “fundamental faults” in the official national biometric database. Shapira recently completed a report entitled “National Biometric Documentation – A Trial Period,” and has sent the report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gilad Erdan before releasing it.

On Wednesday Shapira asked Netanyahu and Erdan not to start the process of legislating a new biometric database compulsory for all Israelis before he is informed of the actions taken to fix the problems found in the report. In addition, the comptroller’s office has approached the Knesset State Control Committee so the committee can decide which parts of the report can be made public and which parts will remain confidential.

Erdan announced on Monday that he will promote a multiyear process that would require all citizens to provide facial photographs and fingerprints for the biometric database. His announcement came after a report by the Biometric Database Management Authority, which was issued at the end of a pilot test period that began in 2013. The authority says the database is needed to prevent the “theft” of people’s identities, and rejected the argument that the database infringes on participants’ privacy.

The two-year pilot period for the biometric database is scheduled to end at the end of June. The authority said that over the last year and nine months, 630,000 people who received identity cards or smart passports have joined the database.

The Biometric Database Management Authority said in response to the comptroller’s request that Shapira has ignored the fact that the faults he cites have already been corrected, and this was noted in the authority’s final report on the pilot project of the biometric database it presented to the Knesset.

“Over the pilot period, the national biometric documentation project was examined by the state comptroller. The fact that the examination was conducted in real time allowed the authority to correct the faults the comptroller pointed out already during the period of the trial. The final report includes explicit comments on the faults, and details the way they were corrected.”

The authority also says that “the attempt by the comptroller to stop the process set in law is not clear.”

The authority rejected claims made by opponents who support issuing smart documents without the centralized biometric database. “In the absence of this database, one could appear multiple times as different persons before the Population and Immigration Authority, obtaining ‘real’ identity cards under different identities. The combination of smart documents and the biometric database is designed to locate and prevent such occurrences, so that each person has only one official identity,” states the report.

The Digital Rights Movement, which is leading the battle against the compulsory database, said in response to Shapira’s request: “The exceptional demand of the state comptroller is in keeping with the explicit comments of the legal counsel to the Knesset [the committee that supervises the database], the Knesset Research and Information Center, scientists and leading information security experts in Israel: The biometric database is dangerous, unnecessary and not properly secured, and the project to implement it is paved with faults and errors that strengthen the dangers expected from it many times over.”

“The time has come to free the citizens of Israel from the database and issue a smart identity card immediately, which cannot be forged, without collecting the fingerprints in a central database,” said the movement.

The creation of a biometric database is supported by security officials. “The counter-terrorism bureau collected the positions of security and law-enforcement agencies regarding the necessity of having such a database. The final document is classified, but it strongly recommends setting up such a database as a necessary requirement.”

Last year Haaretz reported that the Shin Bet security service and Mossad prohibited their employees from changing their ID cards and passports to the smart ones, which involved joining the pilot biometric database. IDF officers in sensitive units were also advised against joining the experiment.

Last month, attorney Nira Rachlevsky, the legal counsel to the Knesset committee that supervises the database, criticized the conduct of the Biometric Database Management Authority. “At present, four months before the end of the pilot stage in June 2015, MKs don’t have sufficient data to allow them to determine the need for this database as a backup for the system issuing electronic ID cards,” she said.

“A proven need for such a biometric database is still unavailable, partly since other alternatives to handling documentation fraud were not fully examined. The pilot project’s second-phase report doesn’t imply that a reliable system of documentation cannot be maintained without a biometric database. The pilot phase and the investigation of the database’s necessity were conducted based on assumed risks inherent in such a database, with projected irreversible damage incurred to individuals if information leaks out, enabling fraudulent identity misappropriation and infringement of privacy.”