Israeli Interior Minister Backs Bid Requiring Biometric Data for Every Citizen

Erdan’s endorsement follows report on biometric pilot project.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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A demonstration of the biometric database's workings at the system's unveiling ceremony. Rishon Letzion, June 8, 2013.
A demonstration of the biometric database's workings at the system's unveiling ceremony. Rishon Letzion, June 8, 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Interior Minister Gilad Erdan announced on Monday that he will promote a multiyear process that would require all citizens to provide their facial photographs and fingerprints to a biometric database.

His announcement came on the heels of a report by the Biometric Database Management Authority, issued at the end of a pilot period that began in 2013. The Authority says the database is needed to prevent the “theft” of people’s identities, and rejects the argument that the database infringes on participants’ privacy.

The authority’s report states that over the last year and nine months, 630,000 people who received identity cards or smart passports have joined the database. “The rates of people joining were higher than expected, allowing comprehensive and in-depth analysis, as required by law,” states the report. “Assessment of needs and investigating alternatives and the ability to implement the law and its objectives, as well as the aims of the authority, lead unequivocally to the conclusion that a biometric database needs to be established to prevent identity theft, giving smart documentation the required levels of reliability. After the pilot, it is recommended to apply the law to all Israeli citizens, in a gradual multi-year process.”

The authority rejects claims made by opponents who support issuing smart documents minus 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,” says the report.

“The defense against identity theft requires appropriate tools that will protect people without imposing too much of a burden on citizens, who are mostly law-abiding. The best tool to avoid identity theft is the biometric database,” asserts the authority. It adds that “similar databases are used by many countries, such as the U.S. (in issuing driver’s licenses), Canada and New Zealand (in issuing passports), and many others.”

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 services 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.

“A proven need for such a biometric database is still unavailable, partly since other alternatives to handling documentation fraud were not fully examined,” said the attorney. “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 on privacy.”

Rachelevsky adds: “The database is prone to errors and not all forgery scenarios can be overcome. Hermetic safeguarding cannot be guaranteed. There are other possibilities with fewer associated risks in case of leaked information, such as using only biometric facial photographs, without the fingerprints.”

The authority’s report rebuts these claims, emphasizing that it fulfilled all the tasks it was given, such as investigation of alternatives. It gives a list of these, such as limited use of biometric data, stating that “the conclusion is that alternatives which include the most biometric data best meet the requirements of the law.”

Following the report’s release, Erdan said, “Smart biometric documentation that is impossible to forge, together with a biometric database, will provide a complete security package for Israeli citizens’ identity, balancing the need to provide security with the need for privacy. We will promote a gradual transition to a biometric database.” He said he advocates requiring people to join the database over the next few years, asserting, “We must combat attempts by terrorist or crime organizations to forge the identity of Israelis.”

The Digital Rights Movement urged the Knesset not to ratify the requirement to join the database. “An investigation that is not serious, such as the one just completed, and which claims that there are numerous cases of identity theft without figures to back this up, and that verbal questioning only solves 95 percent of identity theft cases and that other ways are insufficient since they won’t assist the police, is a biased investigation intended only to preserve the authority’s existence,” said the movement’s legal counsel, attorney Jonathan Klinger. He warned of hasty moves during this interim period, before Knesset committees have a chance to fully discuss the issue.

The authority rejected these claims, arguing that the public expressed its confidence in the database by joining it.

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