A ‘Bug’ That Leaves the Data of ultra-Orthodox People Exposed Has Devastating Results

A well-known loophole exposes a rare stigma in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Instead of fixing the issue – which is leading to expulsions from religious schools – Israel is ignoring it

רן בר זיק - צרובה
Ran Bar-Zik
Ultra-Orthodox men in Israel. Having a driver's license can get them thrown out of school, but Israel is doing nothing to prevent this information from leaking.
Ultra-Orthodox men in Israel. Having a driver's license can get them thrown out of school, but Israel is doing nothing to prevent this information from leaking. Credit: Tomer Applebaum
רן בר זיק - צרובה
Ran Bar-Zik

Do you have a driving license? This question seems silly, doesn’t it? No one could be hurt by the exposure of such a banal detail. However, you may be surprised to know that there are groups in Israel in which the exposure of this trivial detail could lead to harsh sanctions, even to dismissal from a workplace.

This is what happened in 2016 to an ultra-Orthodox female teacher in a Hasidic school in the religious community of Beitar Illit who took out a driving license in order to drive her disabled daughter around. Even an exceptional permit dispensed by the community’s spiritual leader (the so-called admor of a major Hasidic sect) did not save her job. Yeshiva students have also suffered from serious blowback and even sanctions, including expulsion from educational institutions - all because it was discovered that they had a driver’s license.

Some readers will stop reading at this point, remarking that they should leave that way of life if having a driving license is such a stigma. However, it is worth remembering that in the secular world too there are totally innocent pieces of information that, if exposed, could have quite negative implications. For example, having an exemption from serving in the army, particularly due to mental issues. Many women could relate what happened to them when potential employers found out that they were pregnant, or that they planned to be in the coming years.

Ultimately, privacy is a complicated issue and therefore the public should expect every agency that gains access to sensitive data to protect this information, especially when it comes to the state. But who is responsible for the exposure this data can cause? The state, obviously. In this case, the Ministry of Transportation, to be more specific. It has been familiar with the issues of exposing who has a drivers license since 2011, but has done nothing to change the situation, despite repeated complaints by members of the religious community who are affected by this policy.

“I’m disappointed and angry that the government and our country do not protect the personal data of its citizens,” says Y. (full name withheld) in conversation with Haaretz. He is a yeshiva student whose family was subjected to social sanctions after one of his brothers wanted to learn how to drive. “It’s time the authorities started looking after the protection of our personal information,” he says.

Leaky data

How does the information actually leak? The Transportation Ministry has created a loophole that leaves open the possibility of divulging the information of who does or does not have a driver's license through the website that allows one to order a replacement for it. This service is meant to help someone who’s lost a license to replace it, or to update a license after a change of address, name or type of license.

This service is important, but the ministry does not shield people’s identity, enabling easy exposure of yeshiva students or ultra-Orthodox women holding a license. All one needs in order to expose such people is to enter the website page dealing with the issuing of licenses and choose the option of getting a driving license copy or a license for a new driver. You then punch in an ID number and year of birth. These days, despite so many leaks from databases such as the election app that exposed registered voters, this is information anyone can easily access. Schools don’t even have to try hard; the information is already in their system.

If a person has a driving license or not, the applicant gets a message with the relevant information.

A screen capture from the system. A simple search for an ID number will reveal if the person has a driver's license or not. For some, this can lead to a serious social stigma

The Ministry of Transportation said in response to this story that anyone make such use of their system was breaking the law: “Entering the ministry’s database while posing as a license holder is a violation of the law, and in every such case a complaint should be filed with the police. The ministry is aware of the problem and is looking for solutions that will prevent unauthorized persons from obtaining information about people with licenses, without harming the service provided for other people with licenses.”

This is also the exact same answer Israeli website Ynet received in 2011 when it reported that some 30 yeshiva students were expelled for having driving licenses. In the 11 ensuing years, with more and more reports in the media about similar cases, nothing has changed.

Problem solved

If one wants to invest in protecting people’s privacy, one can transfer this and other interfaces behind more impenetrable ID-protective walls. The personal area on gov.il domain that the Israeli state uses is protected by several strong identification methods. If this seems complicated, there are faster and simpler solutions. For example, make the applicant supply the number of the drivers’ license before providing any other information. No stranger could then access the information. In fact, anyone trying to renew a license on that same page will find that the website actually asks for the license number.

It could be that the Transportation Ministry could not find a solution for over ten years, even though the solution is simple and easily accessible. Alternatively, perhaps one could speculate that this is not a bug but a deliberate feature.

One should note here that even before the days of the internet, when the interface was through a phone call, yeshiva heads found ways of using it in order to expose students with licenses, as disclosed in a study led by Dr. Orit Taubman-Ben-Ari from Bar-Ilan University. The study dealt with the attitudes of ultra-Orthodox society to different aspects of transportation, and was commissioned by the National Road Safety Authority, which also funded the study.

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