Leak Rekindles Debate on Biometric Database

Authorities are putting together a biometric database that would include fingerprints and facial photographs of all citizens, ostensibly helping solve crimes.

The leak onto the Internet of thousands of Israelis' credit card details on Tuesday has revived fears that information in the country's biometric database could leak to terror groups or spies.

The authorities are putting together a biometric database that would include the fingerprints and facial photographs of all citizens, which ostensibly would help solve crimes. Meanwhile, Israelis' ID cards and passports would be upgraded to include an electronic chip, which would significantly reduce forgery.

MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ), whose credit card details were among those posted by Saudi hackers, said the leak reveals that any database can be tampered with. She called on the government to "immediately set aside the establishment of the database that endangers the well-being and privacy of Israel's citizens."

Yachimovich called promises that the database would be secure "ridiculous."

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ), who has led the fight against the database, told the interior minister in a letter that the leaking of the credit card information was a "red flag" warning the government of the danger of setting up the database.

Khenin said that unlike credit cards, the damage of leaking biometric information would be irreversible, and called for a reevaluation of the matter. "It's not only unnecessary, it's dangerous," he said.

In December 2009, after a marathon debate, the Knesset approved the establishment of the database, but postponed its implementation for two years, during which a partial and voluntary database would be set up to give the state the chance to learn how to protect the information.

The law passed by a majority of 40 to 11, with three abstentions.

But amid concerns about misuse of the database, a ministerial committee was established to propose compromises. Critics had said criminals might plant false biometric evidence at crime scenes, or foreign countries might expose the identity of Israeli intelligence agents.

The committee suggested a two year run-in period in which "smart" ID cards and passports would be issued only to people who agreed that information about them be included in the new database.

After the two years the interior minister would be able to apply the law to all Israelis or extend the trial period for another two years. If after four years it were decided not to apply the law to everyone, the database would be erased.

The law was then amended to state that if a foreign country decided over the next two years to allow entry only to bearers of biometric passports, the interior minister would have to issue such passports, even if bearers refused to have their information included in the database.

Although the law was passed in 2009, the regulations putting it into force were only decided on in June last year by a joint panel of three Knesset committees: interior and environment; constitution, law and justice; and science and technology. The committee determined that the two-year trial period would extend from November 1, 2011 to October 31, 2013.

The regulations discuss how the biometric details would be collected - during the trial period only from people who volunteer them - how they would be protected and how people's religious sensitivities would be addressed.

The committee also set standards to judge the project's success; one would be an opinion poll. Meanwhile, an implementation report is to be submitted every six months to the prime minister, interior minister, justice minister and public security minister.