Editorial |

The Population and Surveillance Authority

Haaretz Editorial
Israeli security cameras in Hebron, West Bank, in December.
Israeli security cameras in Hebron, West Bank, in December.Credit: Hadas Parush
Haaretz Editorial

With regard to the national biometric database and the protection of personal privacy, too, the so-called “change government” brings no change. A report published last month by the head of the National Cyber Directorate’s Identity and Biometric Applications Unit reveals that in the past seven years the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority sent “reduced-quality” facial images of millions of Israelis to an unnamed government agency. That is, for all intents and purposes it established and transferred a biometric database, apparently illegally.

The pictures given to the agency were collected and stored in a database that serves border control officials at Ben-Gurion International Airport and border crossings, based on a provision in a 2009 law permitting them to use facial images of reduced quality. But in the 13 years since the law was passed, facial recognition technology has advanced so much that the accuracy of these images is similar to that of high-resolution ones. This means that this collection of images constitutes the establishment of a biometric database, which is illegal.

The image transfers ceased only when the head of the biometric applications unit because aware of the practice, and after he met with representatives of the immigration agency and that unnamed government agency. This was not the first time that Roy Friedman saw that the immigration authority had “mistakenly” established an unofficial biometric database. It also emerged from his previous reports. At that time, Population and Immigration Authority officials had been storing the reduced-quality images for their work. The agency claimed that personnel providing services in the authority’s various branch offices had a real need for the facial images in order to carry out their jobs, especially when people come to their office without identifying documents. This database has not been officially established to this day, and is illegal.

In the current report, Friedman discovered that at the same time, an additional database had been established in the border control computers, in an information system called Rotem. Images from it have been transferred on an ongoing basis since 2015 to that same “other government body” – and also held there. Thus, a third biometric database exists, this one in a government agency, apparently illegally.

A biometric database gives the state excessive capabilities for the control and surveillance of citizens. Moreover, it could be leaked or hacked, exposing citizens to a host of threats and risks. The authorities have proven that they cannot be trusted. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara should intervene as soon as possible and order the database of the “other government body” deleted.

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