The switch to smart ID cards and passports got underway last week. The smart documentation includes an electronic chip with biometric data that are saved in a national database to guarantee that every citizen will have just one card with one identity.
The use of identity theft to sell homes and cars that are not owned by the seller has become common fraud in Israel. Bank accounts and credit cards under false identities have caused huge economic damage. The use of forged Israeli passports for the purpose of fraud, sabotage or criminal activity in Western countries represent a continual challenge to Israel's foreign relations.
The national database was established by primary legislation by the Knesset. The basis of the legislation was staff work carried out by the National Security Council in collaboration with range of experts, including representatives of various ministries, security officials, cryptologists, and biometric experts. The results of this staff work guided the switch to biometric documentation together with the saving of biometric data in a central database.
The legislative process was accompanied by a lively public debate, which included petitions to the High Court of Justice. The final bill was designed to guarantee optimal implementation of the national database and maximum protection against abuse of the data.
Among other things, the law states that the database will be established for a two-year trial period, during which numerous tests will be carried out to examine how it will be configured. At the end of the trial period, the Knesset will review the results of the tests, and a decision on the further implementation of the database will be taken in accordance with a review of its advantages compared with its risks.
This is an important point that the seems to have been forgotten in the heat of the public debate. Unlike other public campaigns which are taking place around us on worthy and important issues, the campaign over the establishment of the national database has been decided and passed the test of the Knesset and the test of the High Court of Justice.
A major contribution to the protection of privacy
The legislature faced the fact that smart documentation without a biometric database creates a huge breach, which effectively renders the smart documentation useless. Identity documentation without a database create the appearance of reliable documentation, but in fact such ID would become a common target for theft and forging identities. For example, criminal or other parties could use forged identities with the Population Registry to obtain 'legitimate' and highly credible documentation.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the past few years have provided biometric data without fear to many agencies in the country, including the Israel Airports Authority (at Ben Gurion Airport), healthcare funds, the Israel National Employment Service, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of the Interior, on top of the existing databases at the Israel Police and IDF.
The existence of a national database established by primary legislation by the Knesset will actually improve the protection of every person's privacy, and its contribution to the protection of privacy is far greater than concerns about harm.
The regrettable facts about the protection of privacy are that the forging of Israeli ID cards and passports is currently carried out by amateurs, using simple tools that do not require expertise. Moreover, the Population Registry has to issue more than 160,000 new ID cards a year to people reporting their loss or theft.
Even assuming that most of these reports are in good faith, the people holding false ID cards use them for crime and terrorism. Use of the national database will prevent impersonation and identity theft.
Current documentation has not been updated in over 30 years. The technology - printing, encryption, and biometrics - has advanced beyond all recognition, but Israel lags behind.
In other countries, belying the claims of the opponents, there has been dramatic progress in biometrics. Every Israeli applying for a US visa must provide fingerprints of all ten fingers and a facial photograph, which are stored in a database in the US. In many US states, such as California and Texas, there are biometric databases of drivers licenses of state residents (which in the US function like Israel's ID cards).
Other countries with biometric databases of their citizens that are similar to the database established in Israel include Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Finland, India, Mexico, Chile, and Kenya. All OECD member states use biometric passports, and the details of the passport holders are kept in databases in some countries.
In Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, visa applicants are required to provide biometric data, which are kept in databases. Every person in the 28 EU member states must provide biometric data to obtain a visa, and the data are kept in a central biometric database (which has tens of millions of items).
Therefore, the argument that Israel is the only democracy which operates a biometric database is untenable and wrong.
These facts are known to the database's opponents, who continue to make claims about leaks from the database and the misuse of the data for extraneous purposes. The fear is understandable, but is based on a lack of information, and sometimes plain ignorance.
In line with the rest of the developed world
In order to protect the biometric data, the Knesset decided to establish an independent state agency, the National Biometric Authority, reporting to the minister of the interior. Its main job, in addition to routine management of the database, is to guarantee that there are no break-ins, either physical or cyber, and that the data are used while guaranteeing the absolute protection of privacy.
This is why it was specified from the outset that the database would be managed by an independent agency separate from every other agency, and that only a minimum amount of data would be saved - fingerprints of two fingers and a facial photograph, which are encrypted for storage, and cannot be accessed from outside. The database does not list names, addresses, or any biographical information.
The database is protected by state-of-the-art information security systems. Access to the database is controlled, and restricted to a limited number of employees who have the highest security clearance, and who have been authorized at the recommendation of the Database Authority's director, and signed off by the minister of the interior and the prime minister. The security configuration has been tested and approved by the relevant parties at the Israel Security Agency.
The trial period, which began this week, is necessary given Israel's reality and the need to come in to line with developed countries in the West and in general. During the trial period, any person can choose whether he or she wants to participate and receive smart documentation or not.
When the trial period set in the law expires, the Knesset will review how the biometric database was implemented, and I am sure that the MKs, then as now, will see its contribution to the protection of privacy and Israel's security.
The writer is the director of the National Biometric Authority at the Ministry of the Interior.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 15, 2013
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