Knesset Approves Biometric ID Law After Stormy Panel Session

Controversial legislation amended to limit police access to data, make fingerprinting voluntary, raise minimum age from 12 to 16 for collection of fingerprints.

Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman
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A public demonstration against the compulsory biometric database, outside Interior Minister Arye Dery's home, February 18, 2017.
A public demonstration against the compulsory biometric database, outside Interior Minister Arye Dery's home, February 18, 2017.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman

After a stormy debate and some last-minute compromises, a joint Knesset committee on Monday approved the controversial law requiring Israelis to join a nationwide biometric database.

The full Knesset passed the second and third readings of the bill Monday night. Passed by a vote of 39 to 29, the law requires the country's citizens to be part of a national biometric database that includes a high-definition photograph of their faces. The law also gives citizens the option of consenting to having samples of their fingerprints entered into the database when they apply for a new ID card or passport.

Panel members were divided up until the final vote on two key issues: one over who would authorize the police gaining access to the database; and whether minors would be included in it.

In the end, the minimum age for people to have their fingerprints in the database was raised from 12 to 16. The police will only be allowed access to the database if they receive approval from the president of the local district court, rather than the lower magistrate’s court as originally proposed.

The biometric database, which has been operating on a pilot basis since 2013, is controversial. Supporters say it is necessary to prevent the forging of identity cards and passports by criminals or terrorists seeking to assume other identities. Opponents claim the necessity of the database has yet to be proven, and warn against the risks it poses should it be hacked or otherwise abused.

Instances of people trying to obtain a second identity are so rare, they say, that it doesn’t justify investing enormous resources, violating privacy and risking sensitive information.

The database includes very high resolution facial photos and fingerprints from both index fingers, which will also appear on smartcards issued to citizens.

But another key change in the law makes the fingerprint element optional; this was not the case in the pilot. However, those who opt to only submit facial data will be entitled to a smart ID card for five years, rather than 10 for those who provide both.

The vote in the joint panel – comprising members from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; Interior and Environment Committee; and Science and Technology Committee – approved the law with a narrow 6-5 vote.

Yisrael Beiteinu lawmakers had led the charge to limit police use of the database, and at one point looked to be in a position to block the law altogether. However, MK David Bitan (Likud) hammered out a compromise on the sidelines and the measure was supported by all the governing coalition parties, with the opposition providing the no votes.

Karine Nahon, from the Movement for Digital Rights, which opposes the database, insisted that most lawmakers were supporting the law against their will.

“Today, the Knesset will approve a law that most MKs oppose, but for reasons of coalition discipline are voting for,” she said before the vote in the Knesset. “A biometric database is a dramatic act, which could turn Israel into a tracking state and threaten the safety of its citizens.”

Once the law is eventually passed, Interior Minister Arye Dery will have until May 1 to bring the regulations enforcing it to the Knesset. MKs will then have until July 3 to approve the regulations, and the new law will go into force.

At that point, the Interior Ministry's Population, Immigration and Border Authority will stop issuing identity cards and passports without electronic chips. Anyone seeking to renew a passport or replace an ID card will be given a smart version with a picture and fingerprints stored on it.

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