Israel Advances Use of Face-recognition Cameras in Public

Bill would authorize security services to access information from CCTV without a warrant

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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FILE: A military security camera on the road leading to Hebron, West Bank
FILE: A military security camera on the road leading to Hebron, West Bank.Credit: Hadas Parush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

A bill that would authorize government use of face-recognition technology on public security camera footage was cleared on Sunday by Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, sparking sharp criticism and fears regarding invasion of privacy and potential misuse.

The bill would authorize security services to access information from the cameras and to use that information without a warrant, as well as authorize the Eagle Eye system, which already tracks vehicular movement in the country. Beyond the overall privacy concerns, some oppose the bill over the prospect that the police may use the data to establish a biometric database.

The bill’s official goal is “to codify aspects of the placing and use special camera networks in public spaces by the Israel Police.”

According to the bill, the system would be capable of “focusing on objects or various biometric characteristics, taking a picture of them and comparing them with pictures found in the database, thus enabling identification of the object or the photographed person, if their already-identified image is in the database.”

Other stated aims of the bill include preventing, thwarting or discovering criminal offenses or crimes liable to harm individuals, the public or state security; preventing serious crimes against people or property; locating missing persons; enforcing court-ordered entry bans to public places; and enforcing restraining orders.

According to the bill, the police will protect the information from leaking and hacking, as well as any alteration or copying without authorization – and that they will also "ensure protection of the privacy of those to whom the information pertains."

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata was the sole dissenter.

“When the police can place biometric cameras in every neighborhood with the wave of a finger, it leads to abuse and excessive enforcement of particular populations,” she said. Tamano-Shata asserted that the technology has proven to be problematic in identifying people with dark skin. She said either a committee should be established to supervise camera use or that court orders should be required.

Justice Minister Gideon Saar retorted: “When it comes to reining in terror, I take invasion of privacy with a grain of salt. It’s a public space.” Still, Saar conceded, “the defense minister will introduce changes” to the bill “after reviewing the issue” regarding Tamano-Shata’s claims of “the technology’s inaccuracies” and “beefing up police supervision.”

The bill grew out of Supreme Court criticism of the police’s current use of the Eagle Eye system for tracking vehicular movement. The system, which police claim helps them detect traffic offenses, has been deployed nationwide but had never received formal authorization. This bill seeks to regulate its use – while also authorizing facial-recognition technology.

The memorandum of law, published in July, has come under fire due to fears of invasion of privacy, and it has undergone spot changes in response to that criticism.

Beyond that, though, use of face recognition systems for policing is currently one of the most controversial subjects in the West, says the Israel Democracy Institute’s Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler.

“Israel is not the place for this, and the legal framework for addressing facial recognition should be crafted in a more in-depth and thorough manner,” she said. “In the wording that will be passed to the Knesset, the subject of facial recognition must be removed, and definitely, definitely there should not be authorization to use cameras against protesters who are not suspected of any offense.”

The Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority also criticized the bill.

“The authority’s position is in favor of deepening the dialogue within the government to ensure that technological use of facial recognition will be done only in special, justified situations, while it uses significant means of control to ensure proportional use,” it stated.

The Association of Civil Rights in Israel commented: “The draft bill allows police not only to receive warnings about suspects, but also to gather and store personal information of innocent citizens, without court order or supervision. The bill endangers civil liberties and the right not to be surveilled.”

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