Kristine L Ming

Defense officials who call controversial biometric database safe, possibly told not to sign up

In a stormy session of the Knesset State Control Committee on Monday it arose that the same security agencies which have certified the state’s new experimental and controversial biometric database as properly safeguarding citizens’ private information were possibly instructed themselves not to sign up.

In a session which saw Committee Chairman Karin Elharar having to frequently yell-down various parties who tried to interrupt each other, there was a sudden moment where Elharar asked the various security agencies represented if they had been instructed not to sign up for the database, after the allegation arose.

A representative of the Prime Minister’s Office said he did not know and there was an extended pause when Elharar repeated the question about if anyone among the many security officials present could confirm or deny the allegation.

Eventually Yoav Zak, head of the technology division of an anti-terror agency, did not confirm or deny the allegation, but left the question open saying that “I am not familiar with an instruction to security officials not to register for the database, but anyway registration at this time is only voluntary.”

The meeting came after Interior Minister Silvan Shalom last week preempted a critical report of the hotly debated and revolutionary biometric database pilot for identity cards, announcing he was extending the program for a nine month trial period.

Shalom’s decision came only hours before the much anticipated report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira came out with a highly critical conclusion that the pilot program has failed many of its benchmarks and that the Knesset should think hard before making the database a permanent fixture.

Major deficiencies highlighted by Shapira include: the absence of information about how well the database has prevented identity theft, the use of a defective process for scanning fingerprints such that 430,000 scans are defective, the use of a temporary and flawed database system and method of comparing the system’s results that cannot be used long-term, failure to consider alternative solutions to preventing identity theft and the seeming ignoring of the comptroller’s prior warnings of the database’s deficiencies.

For years, the country had suffered from a phenomenon of persons forging false identity cards, which eventually lead the Knesset to authorize the pilot in 2009 as a way to try to roll back false identity cards.

New identity cards linked to the biometric database included far more personal information, such as a person’s fingerprints and a facial scan, to make it more difficult to falsify or steal the cards.

The authority for managing the database was established in August 2011 and the pilot was launched June 30, 2013 with 430,000 voluntarily registering for the biometric card in the first year alone and that number eventually reaching over 700,000.

Because it was a pilot program and because of serious concerns that abuse of the more personal information used in the cards could lead to grave privacy violations, all registration for the program has been voluntary until now, and its continuation has been an open question.

Throughout Monday’s meeting, government officials from the Population Immigration and Border Authority, the Biometric Database Authority, the police and others were slammed by Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, by the Committee’s lawyer Tomer Rosner, by most of the other MKs in attendance and by a range of experts on cyber security and privacy issues.

More specifically, those criticizing the pilot program demanded statistics about how much identity theft had occurred before the program, how much had occurred during the program and how many indictments had been filed.

Police and biometric authority officials tried to change the subject to a range of other more general statistics showing requests to change identity cards in over 1,133,000 cases over the period 2004-2013, of which 35% involved “criminal offenders,” according to police.

Elharar demanded that the government present the statistics requested within one month.

Another point that arose was that many other countries that have addressed the identity theft issue have used “smart” identity cards and few, if any, states, have gone all the way to using a biometric database which was obligatory.

Over and over, those criticizing the pilot program demanded that the government justify why the program was considered “a necessity,” in comparison to just having “smart” identity cards, especially in light of the many criticisms in Shapira’s report.

Despite a biometric authority official’s response that it was much easier to forge a “smart” identity card than one connected to the new biometric program, Elharar concluded that the responses were insufficient and that the personal information in the databases was in danger of “coming into the possession of bad persons.”

Accordingly, she urged the government to delay for 30 days a vote anticipated late Monday to grant Shalom’s request for a nine month extension to review the pilot program further.

Her preference was to get the data she requested in 30 days, which might lead to ending the program with no further extensions.

Many of those opposing the program have said that Shalom being new to his post is irrelevant as he will mostly take recommendations from the professional agencies under him and their data and opinions will not change.

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