Little Brother Is Watching You

The Biometric Database Law that the Knesset passed last week instructs the state to gather physical identification data from all its citizens - prints of two index fingers and a facial scan - and then store this data digitally. During the first two years, the data will be collected only from people who agree, and later on, from everyone.

But for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, there is nothing new in this. Since 2004, job-seekers who report to the Government Employment Service have been fingerprinted by a machine called a "reportomat." On the first visit, the unemployed person's fingerprint is stored in a special device, and on subsequent visits, a machine similar to an ATM is used to compare the fingerprint with the database of the unemployed. People who have asked whether it is possible to identify themselves by some other means have been answered negatively.

"A priori, you come to the office in an obedient frame of mind," said Ron Kessler, a high-tech worker who registered with the Employment Service this year. "This is something that is forced on you, and they are doing it to people who at that moment are completely unaware of the possible implications - for example, that they might use this for other purposes. It is done on the pretext that this is an efficient bureaucratic system, but there are many other means of identification."

Opponents of establishing a biometric database have warned that it could enable the authorities to maintain surveillance over ordinary citizens' every activity. They also worried that it could fall into the hands of criminal or terrorist elements.

The Employment Service is not the only body that created databases for biometric identification even before the law was approved. Not surprisingly, all those who are participating in the experimental databases are people who were in no position to raise objections to it, like the unemployed.

At the beginning of this year, Haaretz reported that Tsafit High School in Kiryat Malakhi was using a biometric database to identify people entering its dining hall. After the story broke, use of the system was stopped.

And another large database has been compiled on the more than 100,000 Palestinians with permits to enter Israel. These Palestinians have magnetic cards on which biometric data are encoded.

Employment Service spokeswoman Lea Lieberman-Bender said in response that use of the fingerprint device is not compulsory: "The instructions are to say that it isn't compulsory, and if anyone has been told otherwise, it's a mistake."

However, the alternative to using the device is prolonged standing in line.

"I have no other option," Lieberman-Bender replied. "I have only the number of clerks the Finance Ministry budgets."

The Employment Service also told Haaretz that the prints stored in the database are erased if a person has not reported to the bureau in a year, and it does not share them with others - even with the general biometric database.