Court Blasts Biometric Database Ad Campaign

Justices: Must clarify the program is voluntary; rights for balkers not in jeopardy.

Israel’s Supreme Court criticized yesterday a campaign launched by the Population and Immigration Authority, meant to encourage Israelis to join the biometric database.

“While watching the broadcast on television, I thought to myself, ‘why don’t they say that it’s a pilot program, and not required?’” said Justice Miriam Naor yesterday morning, in response to a petition against the campaign filed by an organization called Digital Rights Watch.

“Our recommendation is that future advertisements, if they are produced, should include a message clarifying the fact that at this point, no one is obligated to participate, and that the program is only a pilot, or some other wording to that effect,” continued Naor. “It would be best if people understand that the program is still in testing, and not obligatory,” she added.

Naor urged the Population and Immigration Authority and the petitioners to reach a compromise, but they did not manage to agree on a new wording. Following the ruling, a government representative, attorney Udi Eitan, proposed that future advertisements would point out that “the switch to smart biometric documentation is currently in a test phase, and participation is based on participants’ agreement.” Attorney Jonathan Klinger, representing the petitioners, rejected the government’s proposal, demanding that the Population and Immigration authority specify in its advertisements that the rights of those who choose not to join the biometric database will not be negatively affected.

In the end, Justice Naor, as well as Justices Isaac Amit and Daphne Barak-Erez ruled that current, as well as any future advertisements must adhere to article 2b of the order for “biometric identification and including biometric data on identification forms and databases,” which specifies that during the testing period the Population and Immigration Authority must make it clear that "no rights will be revoked from those who choose not to participate in the program during the experimental phase.”

The petition was filed in October, just days after the campaign to encourage participation in the program was launched. In one commercial, the Population and Immigration authority depicts, under the title “It’s not me,” a man whose identity has been stolen for the purpose of taking out loans and making other transactions. “It’s not you? Your identity can be stolen. Come to one of the Population and Immigration Authority’s centers and request a smart ID card and passport, which are not susceptible to fraud,” says the commercial. There is no explanation that obtaining “smart” documentation requires joining the biometric database, nor that there is no obligation to obtain such documents. The government froze the ad campaign after the petition was filed, but the authority continued airing the commercials.

“The court has proven that it does not buy the Interior Ministry’s deception in terms of the biometric database experiment,” said Professor Karine Nahon, a party to the petition. “The average person who goes to the population office to obtain an ID is not meant to understand all of the dangers of the experiment, or the failures either. It’s only right that citizens understand what’s going on and not be deceived into joining a biometric database, especially as the government hasn’t even decided to create one or not.

The Population and Immigration Authority stated in response that wording recommended by the court “is already included in publicity material that can be found in authority offices, and on its website.”

According to laws drafted on the subject, the biometric database experiment will go on for two years, after which the Knesset will decide if the database should be preserved, and if joining it should be a requirement for Israelis. Two weeks ago, the Popuulation and Immigration Authority stated that roughly 192,000 Israelis have joined the database during the first six months of the test phase. The authority also stated that roughly half of those who obtained new identification during the second half of 2012 chose to receive “smart” documentation.

Tomer Appelbaum