Israel Poised To Pass National I.D. Database Law

By Nathan Jeffay

Published August 12, 2009, issue of August 21, 2009.
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Israel may become the only democratic country to take biometric information from all citizens and store it in a database.

The plan, approved by a Knesset committee and set for a final vote in the fall, is expected to pass easily, as the largest opposition party and the government support the bill. But that apparently won’t prevent outraged human rights organizations, academics and grass-roots activists from spending the rest of the summer protesting the plan.

Champions of the database say it is crucial for Israel’s security. “The danger to the state in the present situation, in which there is no database of biometric information, is critical,” according to Kadima lawmaker Meir Sheetrit, who drafted the bill.

But opponents say that it actually will jeopardize security. “If such a database gets in the hands of a foreign country or terrorist organization, they will be able to identify any Israeli anywhere by their fingerprints or their picture,” claimed computer security expert Eli Biham, dean of computer science at Israel’s leading high-tech research institution, the Haifa-based Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

Sheetrit estimates that there are 350,000 people in Israel with counterfeit identity cards, constituting a huge security threat. Opponents of the bill agree — but they say that he is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The plan, due for implementation in 2012, will take two forms. First, identity cards, which Israelis now must carry at all times, will contain digital renderings of two fingerprints and the contours of the face. This will enable authorities to check whether people are who they claim to be, and to ensure that nobody has identity cards in two names. Second, all the collected biometric data will be placed on a database, which will be accessible to government and law-enforcement authorities.

Avner Pinchuk, head of privacy-protection campaigns at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which is at the forefront of the fight against the bill, lashed out at both parts of the plan during an interview with the Forward.

Identity cards can be made more fake-proof without including biometrics, he said. He claimed that even if politicians insist on encoding biometric details in identity cards, there is no need to store the information in a database, and no rationale has been offered for doing so. When countries store information on citizens without justification, it heralds “a slippery slope to an undemocratic state,” he said.

Roi Lachmanovich, spokesman for Interior Minister Eli Yishai, told the Forward that biometric IDs are not enough and that a database is necessary “so that we can solve security problems: to solve crime and fight terror.”

It is the database that has caused most of the uproar. On this, the Public Defender’s Office has echoed critics of the bill. According to press reports, the office wrote to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, stating that the database would prove detrimental to individual rights and would be “unprecedented both in its existence and in its ramifications.”

At a demonstration in Tel Aviv in late July, lawmakers from Meretz and the far-left Hadash appeared alongside Likud’s Michael Eitan, who is refusing to toe his party’s line on the bill. Several speakers objected on ethical grounds, claiming that the proposed measures are invasions of privacy. Eitan spoke about his fears of a leak — and Israel is no stranger to leaks. The latest annual report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, released in May, raised serious doubts about the ability of government to safeguard private data.

In 2007, data from Israel’s population registry — files with personal data on all Israeli citizens, compiled by the Ministry of the Interior — was posted on the Web. Three months ago, Jerusalem District Police closed the investigation into who was behind the leak, as too many people legitimately had access to the data to make investigations viable.

Biham said that the proposed database will “certainly be subject to leaks” and that the only questions are whether the whole database would be leaked or unauthorized parties will obtain isolated pieces of data through contacts or subterfuge, and whether recipients of information would be foreign governments, terrorist organizations, criminals, businesses or individuals looking to settle a score.

He said that the data would allow foreign governments and terrorist organizations to identify Israelis. For criminals, it would be the key to committing fraud. Businesses could theoretically monitor competitors or customers. On an individual level, Biham added, “Say I have a picture of my wife with someone, and I want to know who he is.”

Sheetrit has been downplaying talk of leaks. “Anyone who says such databases can pose a risk to national security is ignoring the fact that it is the current situation, when forgeries are so easy, that poses the real risk,” he told Israeli media. It will stay secure, he said, because a state body with the standing of Mossad will be created to ensure it does, and because it will be “split.”

By “split,” Sheetrit was referring to the fact that each entry of biometric data will be identified by a unique code, not by the name of the person to whom it belongs. Biometric entries will be stored at the Ministry of Justice. Names of citizens and the respective codes will be stored at the Ministry of the Interior. Critics are unimpressed. An editorial in the daily newspaper Haaretz described this part of the plan as a “solution dating from the Stone Age, technologically speaking.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






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