Five Reasons to Say No to Israel's New Biometric Database

In a world in which computer systems keep growing at the expense of your private space, and in which everyone, from Facebook to police forces collect data, you should value your privacy.

Jonny Silver
Jonny Silver
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Jonny Silver
Jonny Silver

On Monday, Israel launched its pilot biometric database project, an experiment which in some ways is without precedent elsewhere. As part of the project, citizens will have the choice of giving the state personal and physiological data that cannot be forged or altered. The law which regulates this venture was subject to intense criticism from civil rights organizations and from experts on data protection. These claim that the project is run poorly and will lead to leaking of personal information on an unprecedented scale. Is it worthwhile to participate in the project, which at this point is voluntary?

The Israel Population and Immigration Authority explained the value of obtaining a biometric ID card: It will dramatically decrease the chances of identity theft. The head of the biometric authority John Kemeny insisted that the information would be kept in a highly secure site, encoded and separated from the internet or any other communications network. Immediately after submitting information, all personal details will be erased from the Population Authority’s computers. Only an encrypted code will link the biometric details to one's personal identification.

Here are some reasons why it’s not a good idea, so far, to participate in the experiment:

1. The project is designed not to protect your identity but to enable the authorities to spy on citizens.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has appealed to the High Court of Justice against implementation of the project, repeatedly insists that maintaining a biometric database is not required for issuing documents with biometric identifiers (other experts concur). They claim that documents with these identifiers, which are difficult to forge and hard to extract data from, are sufficient for verification of the bearer’s identity and afford protection from identity theft. In contrast, a biometric database is much more vulnerable to a breach. Why set one up? It seems that the reason is not to protect your identity, but to facilitate the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies.

The government and security services will have access to this data. It’s worthwhile to read an interview given to Haaretz two years ago by the Dean of Computer Sciences at the Technion, Prof. Eli Biham: “The regulations regarding this venture specifically mention data usage by police, the Security Services and other security agencies that the law did not intend to be included,” Biham said at the time.

2. The authority overseeing the project has proven to be unreliable.

Several political figures are behind this venture. They assure us that the public’s concerns only reflect a mass hysteria. The biggest supporter at present is Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who said at the launching of the sites issuing biometric cards that “there is no reason to panic.” During the previous Knesset term, the most outspoken advocate for the project was MK Meir Sheetrit, who was its guardian angel for many years. In 2009 he said that “there are many fingerprint databases in Israel to which there is much less public and media opposition than to the biometric database. There are databases that are much more sensitive, such as those of the Mossad, the Security Services, the Prime Minister’s office, the Atomic Energy agency. The biometric database will be better protected, and if the other ones haven’t been breached, neither will the biometric one”.

However, Minister Sa’ar, there is cause for panic, since other databases were broken into, MK Sheetrit. For example, in 2006 an outsourced worker in the Welfare Ministry stole the database belonging to the Population Registry and put it in its entirety on the internet. One can still obtain it on file sharing networks. This database includes all citizens of Israel and contains names and addresses, family relations, gender, ID numbers, national and religious affiliation, birth and immigration dates, and more.

Opponents of the new biometric project predict that information in its database will share the same fate. Since its inception there have been some frightening and worrisome mishaps, which cast doubt on the capacity of the Population Authority to oversee such a sensitive project. Only a week ago we reported that documents from the Justice Ministry reveal that an important component of the project suffers from insufficient security measures. Former Minister Michael Eitan, a vehement opponent of the project, said two years ago that “the state is constructing a time bomb that will blow up in our faces”.

3. It’s not good to be early adopters

‘Early adopters’ is a term for people with a fondness for novelty, wishing to be the first to acquire new technological gadgets, to the delight of their manufacturers. These companies use such people as early trial subjects, before all flaws are removed from the product. However, it’s one thing to buy an iPhone 5 before everyone else, only to discover that there are problems with connecting to wireless networks or with map software that doesn’t work. It’s a completely different matter when it comes to the biometric experiment, where participation may be irreversible.

4. Your privacy is valuable

You don’t need to be criminals or to have a closet full of skeletons to expect that not everyone needs to know everything about you. Privacy is of value, and this only increases as the onslaught on privacy gathers force. In a world in which computer systems keep growing at the expense of your private space, and in which everyone, from social networks such as Facebook to police forces collect data also, and especially, on law-abiding citizens, vigorous protection of our private information becomes vital. In Israel, following the leaking of the population registry information, there is hardly anyone whose name and address cannot be located. Following a leak in the biometric database, this will be true for your physical traits as well.

5. Because you don’t have to

In two years the pilot project will end, and if nothing significant changes in the political personnel standing behind it, the project will be imposed on all citizens of Israel. In the meantime you have the right to withhold biometric identifiers from the state. This will be extremely rare in the future, so treasure it for now.

A dual biometric reader is seen on display at an airport security technology exhibit.Credit: Bloomberg

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