The original article in Hebrew was published on Y-Net on July 23, 2009, and was translated into English by Arthur Livingstone.
There is much confusion surrounding the debate among supporters of the biometric database the Government wants to set up and its opponents. A lot of misleading and inaccurate information is being churned out, sometimes deliberately. We asked Avner Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to try to answer a few of the questions being asked about the biometric database.
What exactly is the biometric database?
Perfunctory debates are currently being conducted in the Knesset on a Government plan to set up a biometric database under a law that is due be approved in the next few days. All the country’s residents will be required to have their fingerprints taken – just like suspects in a police station – and these fingerprints will be stored in the Ministry of the Interior’s computers. Facial images will also be stored in the database so that in future it will be possible to identify everyone by their picture. For example, cameras will take photographs of us walking along the street or taking part in a demonstration – and the databank will identify us.
Where did the idea come from to set up a biometric database?
Because of a continued failure of the Ministry of the Interior, existing identity cards, those that we all carry in our pocket or wallet, are outmoded and easily forged. Now the Ministry of the Interior has finally decided to exchange the old identity cards with “smart” cards: every card will have a tiny electronic chip with the cardholder’s details and biometric data – fingerprints and an impression of their facial characteristics.
But at the same time, the Ministry of the Interior also wants to store our personal data on a Ministry databank. The databank can help the Ministry unmask anyone who might try to acquire for themselves two ID cards under different names.
The Israeli police are also pushing for the database to be set up. They currently have a databank of fingerprints in their criminal identification laboratories, but only of suspects and criminals. They want the fingerprints and the photographs of all of us.
But if there are going to be biometric ID cards, there will have to be a biometric database, no?
No! With a “biometric” card, it’s possible to check each time that there’s a match between the information on the chip in the card and the fingerprints of the cardholder. Like an ATM: the machine checks the authenticity of our card using a secret code on the card and there is no need for a database of all the secret codes. In Germany, for example, citizens have biometric ID cards and passports, but there is no biometric database.
So what’s so terrible about setting up a biometric database? I have nothing to hide.
The database will concentrate sensitive personal information and enormous and extensive power in the State’s hands. It’s another step towards the “surveillance” society in which Big Brother knows everything about us and uses our personal information in various, not always legitimate, ways. The Germans have good reason not to set up a biometric database – they already know what happens in a country that knows too much about its citizens. “Experience brings wisdom.” But the truly wise learn from the experience of others.
Biometric information is extremely sensitive. If a secret code or a credit card gets lost, it can be replaced. But it is not so with our fingerprints. That is the reason that even the Government concedes that if information were to be leaked from the biometric database “it would cause irreversible damage to citizens”. If sensitive information is leaked and falls into the hands of swindlers, organized crime or other inimical elements, the damage caused will be immense. Government Minister, Michael Eitan, who is responsible for electronic signature in the Government, has warned that any leakage of biometric information “would be worse than Chernobyl,” and called for “an end to be put to the biometric database”.
There is in fact no comprehensive and sensitive biometric database in any democratic country like the one the Knesset is anxious to approve. There are certainly countries that are considering one, but they know that every technology is vulnerable and are aware of the danger. This is why there is an ongoing, protracted and profound public debate on the issue. Here in Israel – they are rushing things as if it was a simple and trifling matter.
Why should the database be leaked?
The country’s databases are being leaked all the time. Just recently, the State Comptroller published a scathing report that reveals how the Population Register is available on the Internet and describes other major failures to protect information: “A serious view must be taken,” says the Comptroller, “of the failure of the population administration to protect and preserve information about the country’s citizens.”
The Ministry of the Interior is promising to look after our biometric information better. But considering its dismal record in such matters, it’s extremely hard to put much faith in this promise.
But wait a moment – there are already fingerprint databases. They took my fingerprints when I went into the army. Why isn’t that leaked?
There are smaller fingerprint databases in Israel – not of all its citizens, and they are kept by bodies that are more efficient at looking after them. Part of the army’s database is not even computerized. In any case, these databases include our fingerprints or facial images (like the Ministry of the Transport’s database), and not both.
By the way, the database of the Border Police, the one they use in Ben Gurion airport – checks the contours of the palm and not fingerprints. And in any case you can always use an old passport there and not give any physical characteristics.
They say that the database will help in the fight against terror and crime!
The database’s contribution to the war on crime or terror is quite negligible and is outweighed by the dangers. The counter-terrorism task force, the professional body responsible for the matter in Israel, has already announced that “we don’t have to have a biometric database in order to fight terror”.
On the other hand, the police hope that the database will help them to locate suspects according to their fingerprints. But in fact what will happen is that for every fingerprint found at a crime scene the database will propose a “list of candidates” – innocent citizens, who will be summoned by the police and will be badgered for explanations about intimate and personal matters during a police interrogation not of the most friendly nature. So you think that’s not so bad, and that anyone summoned for an interrogation has nothing to fear “if he has nothing to hide”? Let’s talk about it after you’ve spent time in an interrogation room because of things you never did.
How much is it going to cost?
In the end, this biometric database will be a very expensive business. They looked into the matter in the USA and Britain and discovered that the costs were enormous. So even if there is something to be gained from a biometric database, it’s not worth the price – not the economic price, and certainly not the price of the infringement of our rights.
What, don’t you trust the Knesset? They’ll examine and weigh up everything? They are the people’s elected representatives, no?
Most MKs don’t appear to be bothered by the issue. The debate in the Knesset is being conducted by MK Meir Shitrit completely on his own. He was Minister of the Interior not so long ago and pushed for the project with all his might. He is not willing to consider any alternatives. The other MKs who are committee members and who are supposed to discuss the issue do not even make an appearance at the discussions.
If they are not taking an interest and they do not understand the issue, it is hard to believe that they would have any interest in fighting against the Government’s proposal, and next Monday they are liable to vote for it. The summer recess follows immediately after and we will be stuck with the biometric database, unless we can succeed in stopping them in the few days that still remain.