Despite its statements, the Interior Ministry plans to continue collecting fingerprints for its biometric ID database until 2025, at the earliest. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has proposed a three-year extension of the emergency order that provides for gathering fingerprints from citizens. The Knesset must vote on the measure.
The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority says it needs about two years to buy and introduce facial recognition technology that will obviate the need for fingerprints. The agency is considering retaining the fingerprint database for victim identification in the event of a national disaster.
The collection of fingerprints and storage in a government database is controversial. It is not part of the 2017 Biometric Database Law, but rather of an emergency order due to expire in June. The need to keep this data in the new biometric database has not been proved, and the committee that approved the law has said fingerprint collection should stop and the database should include pictures of faces only.
Haaretz has obtained documents showing plans to keep collecting fingerprints. In September, Shaked met with senior ministry officials and the acting head of the National Biometric Database Authority, Amir Arihan, to discuss a possible extension of the emergency order as well as the findings of a ministry panel that reviewed alternatives.
In August the panel recommended extending the order two years for equipment acquisition and introduction. Shaked said she was adopting its recommendations and extending the emergency order for three more years.
The documents also revealed that the Interior Ministry knew it was working with inappropriate equipment – and despite the recommendations of the professionals involved, it delayed the purchasing process that was supposed to begin over a year ago. In practice, the processes have not yet begun even now.
A tender will be issued soon for purchasing the new system, said a senior ministry official. Another possibility is to bring in another system for the interim stage – but this was rejected because it would be a waste of public funds. So far, biometric database agency has spent 155 million shekels ($50 million), a ministry official noted.
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A waste of time
In October 2020 the special Knesset committee established in 2013 to discuss the biometric law gave then-Interior Minister Arye Dery until June of this year to scrub fingerprints from the database.
The head of the biometric authority at the time said there was no reason not to switch to a picture-only database within 18 months.
Dery did not advance the purchasing of new systems based on facial recognition only, but in January 2021 he established a group to examine the matter before the emergency order expired. In August, not long after the present government took office, the committee submitted its conclusions. The group met dozens of times with government and security officials, with academic experts and citizens – both for and against the existence of the database.
Their report noted what seemed to them to be a “significant delay” in the budgeting and purchasing processes for the new technology. The committee recommended extending the emergency order for two years to complete the purchasing and implementation process.
The committee adopted the opinion of the former director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, Yigal Unna, from two years ago, according to which advanced and appropriate technology exists for facial recognition that will provide the appropriate identification.
The internal ministry committee decides that given the existing situation and the milestones to be set by the ministry – by January 1, 2024 the new system will be in operation, after completing the process of choosing the supplier and implementing the system.
At the same time, the committee recommended considering the possibility of not erasing the fingerprint database, at the request of the emergency administration in the Interior Ministry, the police and the National Emergency Management Authority – so it could be used as an emergency database for identifying the victims of a national disaster.
The scenario involved would be a mass casualty event such as a powerful earthquake. The Interior Ministry has not yet made a decision on the matter, or as to the definition of a mass casualty national disaster.
The establishment of the biometric database was considered to be controversial even before it was established, and was harshly criticized at the time.The biometric database is part of an enormous and complex project called “national smart documentation” – which is intended to replace the old passports and identity cards with biometric documents.
The biometric database was chosen because of claims by the interior Ministry of identity theft, but at the end of the pilot period for the database it was found that this phenomenon is minimal and limited to only a very few cases in Israel.
Opponents of the biometric database claimed biometric documents were unnecessary, but the risk of establishing such a sensitive database by the government and the possible leaking or theft of this information could cause the public enormous harm. No risk assessments about the dangers of such a leak were presented during the process.
The Interior Ministry said that in a meeting in September with representatives of the database agency and the national cyber authority, and in light of the recommendations and data presented, Shaked decided the emergency would be extended for three more years, even though she was authorized to extend it for five years, and with the goal of providing the relevant authorities a reasonable amount of time in which they could purchase and implement the necessary technological tools.
The ministry said the existing biometric identification system, which was purchased from an external supplier in 2014 through a competitive bidding process, is successful. This contract expires in 2024. The authority has begun the purchasing process and a tender will be issued within a few months for a new biometric ID system that complies with the law, and based on Shaked’s decision.