Minister Wants Israel's Biometric Database Trial Extended for Nine Months

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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

Interior Minister Arye Dery is seeking to extend the biometric database pilot program for another nine months, until the end of 2016, before making any decisions about the future of the program. The pilot was due to wrap up at the end of this month, after being extended for nine months.

Dery said that he needs more time to examine the various opinions relating to the scope of the database and its contents. Extending the pilot will require approval by the ministerial committee for biometric applications, various Knesset committees, and the entire Knesset.

The pilot was launched in July 2013 and was meant to end on June 30, 2015. Because former Interior Minister Silvan Shalom assumed his post only a few weeks before the pilot was to end, he asked for more time to study the issue. The Knesset thus agreed to extend the pilot until the end of this month.

Silvan Shalom inaugurating the biometric passport control in May 2015. He has admitted biometric passports have added worktime for Interior Ministry employees.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Then Shalom left politics and Dery replaced him, only a few weeks before the pilot was to end. Now he, too, is asking for an extension to examine the issue.

“This is a significant matter, both to the state and Israeli society, inherent in the need to advance and innovate in all areas of life,” Dery said. “After studying the matter from all perspectives, it’s a complex, sensitive, and weighty issue that will impact on society for many years, which is why I’m asking for a few months to complete the required examination of all the positions and approaches presented to me so I can make an informed decision.”

The main objective of the biometric database is to prevent the forging of identity cards and passports by criminals or terrorists seeking to assume other identities. The database includes facial photos at a very high resolution and fingerprints from both index fingers. By law, the biometric data is stored in a secure database, access to which is highly restricted. Only an encrypted code enables someone to connect the biometric data to the person’s personal details.

Opponents of the database warn that there is a high risk of sensitive data leakage. They suggest issuing “smart” documents and storing the biometric data on them, rather than in a central database. They also suggest improving the application questions and procedures before documents are issued in order to prevent impersonations.

The biometric data law states that after the two-year trial period is over, the interior minister is authorized to issue an order that either obligates all residents to join the biometric database; to extend the trial by up to two more years, or to apply the law in some gradual fashion.

But this order can only be issued in consultation with the justice minister, and must get the approval of the finance minister, the ministerial committee for biometric applications, a joint Knesset committee representing the Law, Interior, and Science committees, and the full Knesset. The law states that if the interior minister does not issue such an order within four years of when the trial began, i.e., by June 2017, then the biometric database will be erased.

The percentage of people opting for biometric passports or identity cards is dropping; between June and October 2015, only 25.2 percent of those obtaining new documents chose them, compared to the period between January and June 2015, when 34.5 percent did so. As of December 2015, some 830,000 citizens had agreed to submit the high-resolution photos and fingerprints.

The Movement for Digital Rights issued a statement saying, “Extending the biometric trial is a serious mistake. Continuing to accumulate the photos and fingerprints in a central database is like building a nuclear reactor in the middle of a crowded urban center for no reason. The biometric database is a danger to Israeli security, a danger to democracy and a danger to the privacy of every single one of us. The trial should be ended and the database erased now.”

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