Bureaucratic Chaos Abound After Biometric IDs Become Mandatory in Israel

Fifteen percent of those getting new documents refuse to have their fingerprints stored in the database; government offices deluged with complaints

Minister Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016.
Moti Milrod

During the first month that biometric identity documents have been compulsory, 15 percent of those getting new passports or identity cards refused to have their fingerprints stored in the database.

Under the new procedures, a high-resolution facial photograph is automatically stored in the database, while the issue of fingerprints is left up to the applicant. Those who refuse to have their fingerprints stored get passports or identity cards that expire in five years, rather than 10. Children under 16 do not have their fingerprints stored. According to the Population and Immigration Authority, 107,000 passports and 65,000 identity cards were issued in June.

But at a meeting on Sunday the parliamentary oversight committee on the biometric database reported that it had been deluged with complaints of citizens who had difficulty obtaining the new documents.

Acting population authority director Amnon Shmueli did not deny that the situation early in the month was chaotic. “The first few days were crazy; everyone descended on our bureaus,” Shmueli said. “But the situation has calmed down; the panic that prevailed then has passed.” He added that 17 percent of the people who came to the bureaus to replace their documents did so unnecessarily because their documents were still valid.

Shmueli added that when the demand became apparent the authority hastened to adopt a system of making appointments by email, but because of problems relating to information security, this was done in only three population bureaus. By the end of this month, he said, the system will be operational in all of the country’s bureaus.

The MKs on the panel — which is headed by MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) — pointed out that there had been many complaints about emails not being answered. Shmueli responded that applicants could also call a telephone service line that would send a message to the bureau. MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) pulled out his phone and tried to call the customer service line, but couldn’t get a response for many long minutes. “I’m very disappointed,” said Maklev. “We didn’t think we’d be tripped up by something technical or by the service.”

The director of the Bnei Brak bureau, Erez Melamed, noted that anyone coming to get a passport will be received even if they don’t have an appointment, but they will likely wait at least 90 minutes to be served.

The population authority’s deputy director for administration and human resources, Naif Heno, said the authority had taken on 100 new workers before the biometric law went into effect, that 60 more clerks would begin work soon and another 30 in early 2018. He added that an agreement would soon be signed with the authority’s employees that would allow the bureaus to have reception hours four afternoons a week, instead of the current two.

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), another member of the oversight panel, complained that the campaign promoting the biometric documents was “irresponsible. On the one hand it led to chaos and lines at the country’s bureaus, while on the other hand the risks of the biometric database are not being presented to the public. There is government pressure to enter the database without an honest explanation to the public.”