Israeli Rights Group Petitions High Court to Halt Use of 'Harmful' Biometric Database

Petitioners seek revocation of demand that each resident join the database – which they claim does not help prevent identity theft – and of temporary order allowing police to collect fingerprints.

A person uses a sensor for biometric identification on a smartphone.
© Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters/R

Israel's Digital Rights Movement petitioned the High Court of Justice Monday, demanding that the court abolish the law that obligates every resident to join a database by submitting high-resolution photos of their faces, and also cancel the temporary order allowing the state to collect fingerprints from anyone who agrees to it.

The organization, which aims to protect citizens' privacy and personal rights in the digital era, has asked the court to issue an interim order that will allow Israelis to receive regular ID cards and passports until a decision is reached on the issue.

Last week, the special Knesset committee charged with supervising the biometric database had decided that from the beginning of June, only biometric identity documents would be issued. Citizens who refuse to give their fingerprints will be issued documents with a five-year expiry date, instead of 10 years.

The document submitted to the High Court reads: “This petition relates to the establishment of a centralized biometric database that does not fulfill a necessary purpose in accordance with the values of a democratic country, and harms the privacy and endangers the security of residents and citizens of Israel."

The petitioners, who include several other individuals not associated with the digital rights group, point out in their appeal that the purpose of the database is to prevent a person from impersonating another and holding several identity cards, but claim that “it has been proven that the biometric database set up by law does not help prevent forgery of identity cards; more precisely, not a single incidence has been found of the theoretical scenario that the database is supposed to prevent.”

On the other hand, the petitioners add, "throughout the trial period there have been cases of information leaks from sensitive databases in Israel and worldwide, which point to the danger of such information being stored in that way." They note that, “there is no argument over the fact that the damage to be expected following a leak from a biometric database is enormous.”

A demonstration against the biometric database, held across from the home of Interior Minister Arye Dery, February 2017.

In the view of the digital rights group, the correct solution to preventing identity theft, duplication of information and forgeries is smart cards on which personal information will be stored, instead of a central database.

The petitioners claim that since the authority that manages the biometric database was created, "it has not managed to present data on the incidence of double identities and has not even tried to collate such figures. Simultaneously, it presented [other] distorted figures in order to cause the Knesset to pass a law establishing the database, although most of its members are not convinced of its necessity.

"The security danger deriving from creation of the biometric database, the danger of leakage from it, the danger of its use for bad purposes by terrorist organizations or problematic workers – all these stand in contrast to a problem that exists only in theory and can be fixed by effective solutions that are less damaging to one's privacy, without doing harm to constitutional principles, state security or the security of the country's residents.”

Attorneys Jonathan Klinger and Galit Lubetzky submitted the appeal on behalf of the Digital Rights Movement, which raised 115,000 shekels (about $31,800) from the public, via crowdsourcing, to finance its legal struggle against the database. Other petitioners are Boaz Arad, head of the Ayn Rand Center in Israel; high-tech specialist Asaf Katz; information-security experts Doron Ofek and Doron Shikmony; Prof. Karine Nahon, an information scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and the University of Washington; Ze’ev Golan, senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies; and the Movement for Social Economic Freedom.