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Inside Israel's Booming Business of Biometric ID

Technological breakthroughs have led to a raft of developments in biometric identification, from fingerprint censors in smartphones to palm readers in airports. But is the fear of identity theft infringing upon personal privacy?

Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman
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Minister Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016.
Interior Minister Arye Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod
Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman

The J. Safra Sarasin bank in Switzerland employs several Hebrew-speakers for the benefit of Israeli clients. In 2011, someone called the bank many times, each time introducing himself as a different client. After a raft of calls and faxes, he cleaned out these clients’ accounts.

In recordings of the conversations between the employee and the imposter, presented in court, the employee can be heard schmoozing while transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars. This blunder could have been avoided if the clerk had taken even minimal precautions in identifying the account holder.

This is an example of the ease with which one can pose as someone else when, in the best-case scenario, ID is based on passwords, codes and cards that are easy to steal or forge. And it's especially the case when face-to-face encounters are becoming ever rarer.

Biometric identification can prevent such incidents, and in recent years municipalities as well as companies both private and state-owned are embracing it.

“You can’t have an orderly process of digital financial services, municipal services and online purchases without secure identification,” says Ram Walzer, the biometric applications commissioner at the Prime Minister’s Office. “If our government, like others, manages to set up this infrastructure, it will become a huge economic asset.”

The word biometric has been used recently mainly in the context of Israel's biometric database, which Interior Minister Arye Dery is pushing. Still, many questions remain about whether any country really needs such a tool.

Walzer is aware it's an emotional topic but argues that, biometric database or no, this mode of identification has vital applications in a modern economy.

“You can love it or hate it or say we’d prefer that there not be biometric applications, but a sober look forces us to open our eyes and face reality,” he says. “Israel is undergoing a revolution in identity security.”

Biometrics is the measurement and analysis of a person's physical and behavioral traits; the best-known markers are fingerprints. Other methods are based on the face or iris. These two methods and fingerprints are considered highly accurate. Other methods slowly gaining ground are identification of the geometry of one’s palm or typing style based on rhythm, pauses and speed.

Biometric passport control gates at Ben-Gurion Airport.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Technological breakthroughs in recent years have led to a raft of developments in biometric identification, some of them well known. Many new smartphones have a fingerprint sensor that unlocks the device. Ben-Gurion Airport has palm readers that let you bypass border-control lines. Face recognition has also become a popular technology, mainly due to Facebook and Google, which are already skilled at identifying and categorizing users and their friends.

“Governments can make the digital economy profitable by providing infrastructure for secure identification. The potential value of such an economy is immense," says Walzer in his first interview, given ahead of his departure from his post at the end of the year.

"Israel is part of a limited club of developed countries that are promoting the field, and it has the tools needed for success. Several research institutes collect and publish data on the economic value of using biometric applications, which gives us some perspective. By 2020, the value of such a market could reach $34 billion.” This number is based on research by Acuity Market Intelligence.

No more passwords

Biometric sensors are expected to be used more in the future. They will be placed in mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearables. There will be more biometric identification in order to gain access to bank accounts, buy something online or make a payment on services such as PayPal.

Walzer, who was appointed biometrics commissioner in 2011, set up a national headquarters for biometric applications. Its main activities are to shape policies in the industry and secure personal identification.

The headquarters supervises the documentation project of the Interior Ministry, which issues smart ID cards and passports, and does research and development. The headquarters forecasts that by 2020 most computerized applications will include biometric technology for identification.

In other words, passwords will become a thing of the past. They will no longer be needed for accessing email, banking or making payments.

Currently, private companies possessing a database that includes biometric data aren't supervised, and the leak of such information could infringe on users’ privacy. Guidelines have been set up to handle the risks of improper use of biometric data.

In the future, government services will be distinguished by their sensitivity level. Anyone requiring sensitive services such as receiving National Insurance Institute benefits will have to be identified via biometric indexes.

“Not all identification will be biometric. Only the obtaining of sensitive services will require this method. Most government services won’t require biometric identification. We’re living in an era in which more and more services are becoming digitalized, and secure identification is the gateway to online services," Walzer says.

"Smart ID cards and passports will let all Israelis access government services through their mobile phones, from any location. This will serve as the basis for modern services and will support the economy, making business transactions easier and underpinning issues that relate to personal and national security.”

The national headquarters determines the degree of state involvement in managing this enterprise, and has built a model that defines when the state will intervene.

“Our guidelines are a practical tool for every chief executive of a government or private company that decides to use biometrics. Currently, many companies follow their own path, for better or worse, since there's no official policy," Walzer says.

"We believe, after hard work involving the few experts in the field we have in Israel, that we’ve struck the balance point between effectiveness and preserving privacy of information.”

Fingerprints? You choose

A key is distinguishing between the biometric applications Walzer is coordinating and the Interior Ministry's biometric-database project.

“It’s important that every citizen has a smart ID card or passport that includes biometric data. That’s beyond dispute,” Walzer says. “The only disputed topic is the database itself, which has now gone through a trial phase.”

This dispute peaked recently after Dery decided that the database was essential; the decision was reached after a three-and-a-half-year pilot project. It will be compulsory to join the database; get ready for high-resolution photographs of your face.

Unlike previous interior ministers who led the pilot study, Dery decided, at Walzer’s recommendation, that Israelis will be able to choose whether they want to provide prints of their two index fingers. Anyone opting out will have to renew his ID card or passport every five years instead of every 10.

“I’m convinced that this is the optimal balance between protecting one’s privacy and the state’s need to protect its citizens from identity theft,” Dery said. His decision still needs to be approved by the Knesset.

Walzer says he headed the committee that advised Dery about the database's trial period. The panel included the head of the national counterterrorism program, the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority, the national statistician and representatives of the public. It presented its recommendations over a year ago, stating reasons why the biometric database was necessary.

“We recommended including facial photos only, without fingerprinting, and suggested ways of ensuring updating and adopting new technologies as they emerge,” Walzer says.

Why do we need a biometric database?

“The committee discussed this issue. We examined alternatives for ensuring secure personal documents, an issue that was not controversial per se. After examining options here and abroad, we concluded that there was no powerful alternative reliable enough to provide what we think is necessary. Other countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada and soon Britain have passports that include biometric data based on facial data.”

Do you understand people’s concerns?

“I understand people’s reluctance to submit their data. That’s natural, and I’m concerned as well. It would be worrisome if that wasn’t a concern among people working at this. These concerns should be expressed as part of the work plan, and I’m convinced they've been incorporated into the project's risk-management aspects.”

The database's main advantage is the prevention of identity theft, Walzer says. The antiterrorism experts have talked about the impact of such theft, but not about its scope. The population authority has said it has no data on the size of the problem. The police refused to divulge such figures but said the database is vital for preventing such theft.

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