Israeli government looks at biometric technologies

A bill approved by Israel’s government on Sunday proposes that all residents must be issued biometric identity cards and passports carrying two fingerprints and scanned facial features. The Interior Ministry also intends to establish a biometric database of all Israeli residents, a plan that has drawn criticism from lawyers and civil rights campaigners.

Biometric verification allows unique identification of a person by evaluating one or more distinguishing biological traits, such as face, iris, hand and speech. A recent ABI Research report expects investment in an array of biometrics technologies around the world to drive spending to US$7.3 billion by 2013, up from around $3 billion in 2008.

In 2005, the 188 contracting states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to begin issuing biometric passports no later than April 10, 2010. Last February, the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin a $1 billion, 10-year contract to help create a huge biometric database. On Monday, French defense firm Thales won the first contract to establish a national identity card program in the UK, which may eventually be worth at least $9.4 billion.

For its part, Israel’s parliament is expected to approve the government’s bill around October. Arie Bar, chief of the Interior Ministry, said he expects the project to start in early 2009 and be completed within three or four years.

The database will be managed by a dedicated authority, and is not expected to include details of international travelers passing through Israel.

The government said the database, which is set to be part of the country’s “Smart ID” project, will combat counterfeiting and improve its service, but Israel’s Association for Civil Rights, the Israeli Bar Association and other organizations warned that the database will jeopardize privacy and pose numerous dangers.

The biometric database poses risks of privacy, data security, information leakage and linkage with other databases, according to Dan Hay from the Israeli Bar Association.

“Every database can be breached. Insiders can leak sensitive information, so other people can use fingerprints in order to forge documents or imprint fingerprints in crime scenes to incriminate others,” Hay said.

The database might be linked to other databases so that authorities or unauthorized people can receive a detailed profile of a resident, Hay said. Such a profile can include the resident’s whereabouts, communication data, financial status, skin color, gender and ethnic origin, according to Hay.

At the Interior Ministry, Bar dismissed opponents by saying that the “smart” documents and biometric database, which will be separated from the Population Registry, will only allow officials to ascertain a person’s identity in response to a query.

“If the police want to identify a fingerprint of someone who’s not there, it needs the approval of a senior judge. Even then, fingerprints are only used to ascertain the person’s identity and authorities don’t receive a list of the people in the database,” said Bar.

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