Biometric Database in Israel May Not Be Approved, Says Knesset Panel Head

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

The future of Israel’s biometric database remains uncertain, as the head of the Knesset committee responsible for deciding its fate expressed concerns about the security of the system.

The pilot program under which citizens voluntarily join the database has been extended twice because of a changeover at the helm of the Interior Ministry. The latest pilot is due to end in December.

MK Nissan Slomiansky, head of the joint Knesset committee for biometric identity measures, said he would not allow any more extensions of the pilot. “I’m not sure that we will approve the establishment of the biometric database,” said Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi).

Fears about the ability to secure the database properly are the main reason why it has not yet been adopted. Members of Slomiansky’s committee are expected to demand substantial clarifications regarding security procedures before agreeing to make the database permanent.

“If they could tell me that the database is absolutely secure, I would be a lot calmer,” Slomiansky said. “The problem is that they’ve been telling us that no matter what protection they install, there will always be someone more sophisticated who can hack it.”

On the other hand, he added, “All the state’s secrets are already protected by similar methods, so that if someone can break into the biometric database, he can by the same token break into more significant databases and extract state secrets. But we also have to hear out opponents, who argue that the state is gaining control over significant information while the citizen is losing his privacy.”

The pilot has been extended twice for nine months each time, by two interior ministers, once by Silvan Shalom, and again by Arye Dery, both of whom said they needed time to study the issue upon assuming their post. Dery has come out in favor of the database, saying he plans to require citizens to get smart identity cards and passports. But despite these declarations, the Interior Ministry has yet to formally ask the committee to discuss the database’s future.

Last month, Deputy Interior Minister Meshulam Nahari told the Knesset that the ministry had not decided whether to include in the biometric database only facial features or also fingerprints, though both are being collected under the pilot. He said the pilot had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the database is necessary.

“The database enables us to trust the person presenting the document and the reliability of the document,” Nahari said, in response to a parliamentary query submitted by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz).

Nahari added that the data is not exposed to the internet or to any external network. The data is encrypted and includes only a photo and two fingerprints, along with an encoded identifying number. “The database has no other details, like an address, name, identity number or any other identifying detail,” he said.

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