New Bill Would Create Database of People Entering, Leaving Israel

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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People arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.
People arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport.Credit: Hadas Parush
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

Justice Ministry officials are working on legislation that would enable the Israel to build an extensive database on people entering or leaving the country.

The officials are working in coordination with other ministries, the National Security Council and with the Privacy Protection Authority. According to the Justice Ministry, similar databases already exist in many other Western countries, but experts have raised concerns that the Israeli database will impinge on privacy rights.

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Israel’s security agencies have been working for years on such a project. The undertaking, first reported on the Zman Yisrael website, is mainly designed for security and combating terror. But the authorities say the database will also assist them in combating organized crime, arm-export violations, drug smuggling and human trafficking. It may also be used to protect against the spread of epidemics, such as the coronavirus.

The current version of the bill being formulated to govern the database would allow it to hold, among other things, travelers’ names, birthdates, passport numbers, citizenship, flight numbers, their travel itinerary and details connected to credit cards and other means of payment. It would also include information on membership in airline clubs and what items people are taking on flights, whether checked in or taken on board.

The Justice Ministry said the information stored in the database would only be used for limited, designated purposes. But the detailed and comprehensive information to be stored has raised concerns among experts that privacy rights could be harmed.

Prof. Michael Birnhack, of the Tel Aviv University law faculty, said he feared that the government could not guarantee that access to the information would be restricted.

“There are laws of nature regarding such databases,” he warned. “One is that they will sooner or later leak. The second is that even though there is one declared purpose for the database, it will quickly be used for other purposes.”

The Justice Ministry said the database was being developed in view of a United Nations call for governments to develop such databases and was already approved in principle by the cabinet. Officials said similar projects existed in dozens of other countries, including the United States, members of the European Union, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“There are no plans to make it broader than what is customary around the world, and to conform to prevailing arrangements as directed by the International Air Transport Association, which relate to the type and nature of collected information and its permitted use,” the ministry said in a statement.

According to the ministry, the purposes for which the information can be used will be defined in a bill that will be open to public comment. It appears that the purposes will include combating terror and serious crime, protecting civil aviation, combating illegal migration and improving border control, as well as protecting public health by preventing the spread of epidemics and infections.

Further limits, said the ministry, will be imposed on permitted usage of this data, including defining which government agencies have access to the data, with compartmentalization within such agencies.

There will also be limits on how long the data is stored, with rules for classifying data and making it anonymous, based on international standards and technological requirements for protecting data.

Prof. Birnhack warned that the risk of an invasion of privacy remained. “This is part of a trend of creating more and more databases. Sometimes it seems that they are created only because they can be. Systematically collecting detailed data about the movement of citizens, including their habits, the meals they order, the seats they occupy, prices, etc., impinges on their constitutional right to privacy. It should be allowed only on the basis of Israel’s Basic Law on human dignity and liberty,” he said.

Birnhack said he was worried about the present formulation of the bill. “It seems there is intent to collect redundant information, well beyond what is required for combating terror and crime or protecting public health,” he said.

“The government is right to regulate this through legislation, but it must define precisely the purpose of such a law. This should dictate the means used. It should also be determined who has access to what data, based on the intended purpose. There should also be a person charged with protecting privacy rights, with periodic reports to the Knesset and transparency regarding the use of the data. The law should be reviewed after some time,” he urged.

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