Israel Launches Pilot Biometric Program, Warns Naysayers Not Panic

Gideon Saar and other Interior Ministry launched Israel's controversial biometric database in Rishon Letzion amid protests.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar on Monday launched the first stage of a controversial national Israel experiment in operating a biometric database.

"There's no need to panic," Sa'ar said at the Rishon Letzion offices of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, as protesters rallied outside. "I hear people talking about the issue without being deeply familiar with it. The systems comply with the highest standards of information security and safeguarding privacy."

The pilot program, which will start in Rishon Letzion and Ashdod, will be voluntary for its two-year run, during which the ministry will issue old-style ID cards to those who decline to submit their biometric data.

The protesters called on Israeli citizens not to take part in the pilot.

"This constitutes lethal and irreversible damage to our privacy," said professor Karin Nahon of the Movement for Digital Rights, which petitioned the High Court of Justice against the establishment of the database.

Haaretz and Channel 10 revealed in early July that according to Justice Ministry documents, one of the central components of the experiment, the national certificate authority project, lacks proper security.

The pilot began in Ashdod on Monday as well, with Kfar Sava and Herzliya to join on Tuesday. By the end of the month, smart-ID cards will be issued across the country.

"I recommend that all Israeli citizens take part in the pilot and choose a smart-ID," Sa'ar said.

Amnon Ben Ami, the director general of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, said, "I'm convinced that when the pilot is completed in two years, all today's arguments will seem superfluous. We hope the public will have faith in the move."

The project's directors and officials from the authority stressed at the press conference that the main object of the database is to prevent identity theft and the all-too-common practice of forging ID's and passports. According to the law, the biometric information will be kept in a special database run by the Biometric Administration.

The head of the administration, Gon Kameni, said the information will remain in a secured, coded database, unconnected to the web or any other communication network. Immediately after the information is received, it will be deleted from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority's computers. Only an encrypted code will connect people's biometric data and identities.

Still, those opposing the project believe the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

"If the information leaks or something goes wrong, if it is used in an improper fashion, we, as citizens, cannot protect ourselves. The information in the biometric database is our information. I have no way of changing my fingerprints or my facial features," said professor Nahon. "We support a smart-ID card, but oppose the biometric database. We oppose experiments on human beings."

Baruch Dadon, who is heading the pilot, said that during the pilot, only Population, Immigration and Border Authority will be able to access the database. If the Knesset approves the continuation of the project, the police would be allowed to request specific information according to existing laws.

Reuters
Tomer Appelbaum