Police Want Facial Recognition Systems Installed Across Israel

Police argue in a draft bill facial recognition cameras would help prevent crime, but some experts warn of potentially severe privacy violations

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Surveillance cameras in Tel Aviv, last year.
Surveillance cameras in Tel Aviv, last year.Credit: Meged Gozani
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The police are promoting a bill that would allow the force to use facial recognition systems in public spaces across Israel without the need for a warrant, according to a draft of it made public on Thursday.

If the bill becomes law, police would be allowed to use facial recognition cameras to match people's faces to the data stored in police databases. Some experts warn that the bill does not sufficiently address the issue of privacy, fearing police might use it to establish its own biometric database.

The draft bill states that the proposed systems would help "thwart offenses that could harm a person’s wellbeing or security," investigate "criminal patterns," expose crimes and identifying suspects and enforce restraining orders.

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The bill also notes the data collected by police will remain protected, but it does state that police can share the data with other agencies, such as the Military Intelligence Directorate and the Shin Bet security service for the purpose of “carrying out their duties."

The bill is being formulated amid criticism by Israel's Supreme Court's over current police use of a vehicle surveillance system, which police claim assists them in solving crime. However, no law regulates its usage, and the public security and justice ministries hope to achieve that with the new legislation.

The bill states: "The arrangements proposed in the draft reflect the proper balance between protection of privacy and the public interest in preventing and uncovering crime, finding perpetrators and bringing them to justice, and preserving public order and security of persons and property."

As for the issue of privacy violations, "the information collected in the special camera system will be used in a way that does no harm, to an extent that conforms to a person’s [need for] privacy," the draft text reads.

The bill fails to mention Israel's biometric database, which has integrated fingerprints and facial contours into one database. However, police are already authorized to use it with a court warrant. Experts warn that the new law will allow the police to establish its own biometric database, which will be more advanced than the government's one.

The draft bill doesn't set rules pertaining to storage and use of the data, leaving regulation for the public security and justice ministers' decision, which would have to be approved by the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee.

“For years now the police have been employing more and more surveillance technology behind the backs of citizens that erodes our privacy," said Attorney Anne Suciu, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "Now, instead of regulating and restricting these means by law, the police are asking for a blank check to continue in the same way.”

According to Suciu, the proposed law is dangerous because “it will allow the police to conduct mass surveillance of citizens, including biometric facial recognition. This law is a huge threat to the privacy of all of us and it give a free hand to the police to use the information it gathers by means of this technology without judicial oversight. We will not let this surveillance law pass."

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