Whisper the word "biometrics" in America, and you will set a White House petition churning and a Reddit thread frothing. For the new generation of Americans, unburdened with an immediate foreign enemy or fight for survival ("Our Great War's a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives," wrote Chuck Palahniuk), privacy rights trump all. All a beloved U.S. president has to do is roundaboutly endorse wiretapping/cyberspying, and his approval rating among the 30-and-unders will automatically plummet 17 points.
So when the Israel Ministry of Interior announced yesterday that in just two weeks, the government plans to begin building a biometric database of all Israeli residents — by upgrading citizen ID cards and other non-citizen identification documents to include fingerprints and facial-recognition data — this righteous young American waited expectantly for the collective rally cry.
Should have known that in Israel, great paranoid Jewish haven surrounded by haters, security trumps all.
"I think we know that all our phones/computers are already (and for a while) are being monitored for security reasons," one Israeli friend told me over Facebook chat. Another explained that for Jewish citizens, the "Israeli government is just perceived as less frightening in those issues. People are not afraid here of the secret services like they are in the U.S." (Not least of all because during mandatory army service, "you get to work with people from Mossad and Shabak a lot. And you can also be drafted to those." Although one can imagine that Israeli-Arabs, most of whom do not serve in the army and don't exactly maintain a chummy relationship with Israel's secret services, aren't feeling so secure.)
There are, however, some Israeli rights groups and activists who have been fighting the biometric database — screaming about it to anyone who will listen, really — since it was first proposed in 2007.
Avner Pinchuk, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said yesterday that the database would be "catastrophic" in its reach — the only one of its kind in a democratic country. (He said that the Netherlands previously planned to store all residents' information in a central database, but that the plan was shut down in court.)
"The police could use this information in all kinds of ways to avoid their constitutional responsibilities of due process," said Marc Grey, spokesman for the ACRI. "And then you have all the issues of security [breaches] by external entities."
Israel's new ID program may not seem like such a big deal on its own, but combined with other technologies such as surveillance and GPS tracking, the nation's privacy settings could soon propel it clear out of the Western sphere. And all this talk of Israel being "the first digital state" isn't very reassuring. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explores the possibilities of biometrics (can you imagine if Waze got involved?):
Biometrics’ biggest risk to privacy comes from the government’s ability to use it for surveillance. As face recognition technologies become more effective and cameras are capable of recording greater and greater detail, surreptitious identification and tracking could become the norm.
The problems are multiplied when biometrics databases are “multimodal,” allowing the collection and storage of several different biometrics in one database and combining them with traditional data points like name, address, social security number, gender, race, and date of birth. Further, geolocation tracking technologies built on top of large biometrics collections could enable constant surveillance. And if the government gets its way, all of this data could be obtained without a warrant and without notice or warning.
Large standardized collections of biometrics also increase the risk of data compromise from which it could be almost impossible to recover. In the near future, biometrics could stand in for your driver license or social security number, and you could be asked for a thumbprint or an iris scan just to rent an apartment or see a doctor. This could lead to many vulnerable copies of that linked data that could wind up in the hands of identity thieves. And any data compromises would be catastrophic; unlike a credit card or even a social security number, your biometric data can’t be revoked or re-issued.
ACRI spokesman Grey said that in Israel in particular, "the fear that the government will abuse the system might be greater because the Israeli government tends to pull the security card often. ... Whatever the security apparatus wants, it gets." Popular Israeli journalist and TV host Dan Margalit showed us why that's possible in a recent op-ed on the biometric database for Israel Hayom: "I'm going to go ahead and give a credit line to democratic regimes," he wrote. "I prefer security over individual freedom."
To sidestep what detractors the program does have, the Ministry of Interior will launch the database as a voluntary two-year "pilot program." But considering that Israelis' current ID cards are flimsy pieces of paper with ghetto graphics that any terrorist could reproduce with his cave press, the government is basically forcing anyone who wants to graduate from the Stone Ages to enroll in the database.
Anyway, the real pilot has been in place for years now: Israel currently gathers biometric data from all Palestinians who cross between Israel and the territories, as well as any migrants who apply for visas. (Not unlike the FBI's own collection of biometric data through "Secure Communities," its premiere immigrant deportation program, in order to build the groundwork for its nationwide "Next Generation Identification" plan. Yes, it's as creepy as it sounds.)
One last tie-in for the the conspiracy theorists back at home: Israeli companies Verint and Narus were reportedly supplying technology and doing dirty work for the NSA as it wiretapped and data-mined millions of Americans. Considering these companies were born from elite units of the Israel Defense Forces, they're likely willing to go even further for their home country.
But again — wiretapping and other breaches of privacy around here are largely accepted as the cost of making a secure home in Jihad country. A prominent German journalist in Israel once told me that while working on a story about Iran, Israeli government officials (who he knew personally) pulled him aside at an event to ask why he was making so many calls to Iran. We laughed it off, as foreigners in Israel who fancy themselves rebellious and untouchable often do.