One Year In, Israel’s Biometric ID System Suffering High Failure Rate in Recognizing Fingerprints

The system is falling short both at Israel’s borders and with the police, though the recognition of faces is going better, a new report says

Minister Dery's fingerprint being scanned for Israel's biometric database, June, 2016.
Moti Milrod

A year after its launch, Israel’s biometric database is suffering a high failure rate in identifying fingerprints, according to a report by the committee reviewing the success of the Biometric Database Law.

The failures occur both at Israel’s borders and by the police, said the panel, which met Tuesday.

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The unit responsible for implementing the database, which is subordinate to the National Cyber Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office, reviewed data from the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry, the National Biometric Database Authority and the police from July 2017 through July 2018.

Most of the unit’s findings are presented in the report, aside from a classified section on security and privacy.

For its part, the Population and Immigration Authority said the fingerprint identification failures were not significant because the matching of faces was going at the predicted rates. Also, in cases when passport holders cannot be identified based on their fingerprints, a border control employee simply does the identification face to face.

In addition, “some of the errors stem from people placing their fingers incorrectly,” the Population Authority says.

The report also addresses border control procedures where systems use a photograph in a non-biometric passport to identify the traveler. According to the report, there is no record on how non-biometric photos are being saved, no tracking of their quality and no record of the identification success rate.

Roy Friedman, a senior official in Israel’s biometric identification efforts, said the non-biometric method must adhere to the law, and the Population Authority has not been reporting on it.

The authority responded that the new Biometric Database Law does not address identification with non-biometric passports, therefore it need not be reported.

>> Read more: Inside Israel's Booming Business of Biometric ID

According to the report, last December the police said comparisons of fingerprints they took with the data stored in biometric ID cards had a very high failure rate. Friedman asked the police for an analysis and answers on how the problem could be addressed, but the police have not yet responded.

“The police didn’t prepare appropriately to use the technology, to enforce the law, and there’s a real risk of improper identifications, one of the big risks to a law-abiding democratic country,” said Tehilla Altschuler Schwartz of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“For instance, if someone is arrested and isn’t carrying an ID card, the police could take his fingerprints, run them through the biometric database and get a false match – and thus think they have someone else.”

The national unit for implementing Israel’s biometric database program was formed in 2011. Last year, the biometric data requirements became binding law.

On the positive side, the report notes that the Biometric Database Authority has been deleting data from the system when mandated by law.