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Israeli jurists right to call biometric database “extreme” and “harmful”


Last week, the Israeli High Court of Justice held a hearing on a petition seeking the annulment of a law that would establish a governmental biometric database and the cancellation of its two-year pilot program.

In the hearing, the Justices voiced harsh criticism of the Israeli’s government preparation for the biometric database pilot. They noted the creation of a centralized database is an “extreme” and “harmful” measure. The Justices said it was unclear why the government wanted to maintain such a database given that the smart identification cards can be issued without one.

Petitioners to the high court maintained that a biometric identification system should be able to work without a central database, which constitutes an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, have introduced or are introducing biometric identification systems that avoid the creation of a central databank.

The court was therefore right to demand that the Israeli government rework its planned pilot of the program to evaluate whether it is actually necessary to store the population’s biometric data in a single, centralized database. In light of the other security infractions that have occurred with biometric systems in Israel in the past, the court was correct to force the Interior Ministry to explore other options that could prevent data leaks or information theft.

The theft of biometric data for nine million Israeli citizens in 2006, which was exposed on the Internet, serves as a warning that if centralized biometrics databases are ever compromised, the damage can never be undone. Fragmenting and securing biometric databases in different government departments therefore make eminent sense in order to enhance security.

Civil society, intellectuals and academics are also right to point to the excesses inherit with the unilateral and uninhibited use of biometric technology by government. In academe, sociologists such as Gary T. Marx have argued that when science-based technology is increasingly utilized in rule enforcement, the result is a highly “engineered society” whose end-goal is to exercise total control over business processes and human behavior.

For G.T. Marx, the technological nature of control is key. He points to the emergence of: video and audio surveillance; heat, light, motion, sound and olfactory sensors; electronic tagging of consumer items; biometric access codes; drug testing; DNA analysis; and especially, the use of computer techniques employing electronic networks such as expert systems, matching and profiling, data mining, mapping, simulation and electronic network analysis and surveillance, as evidence of an emerging “engineered society”.

Within the “engineered society”, control is ever more integrated with information-sharing networks, which blurs many traditional, institutional and organizational bodies (such as governments, banks, insurance firms and health care providers, educational facilities, workplaces, telecommunication providers, and sales and marketing organizations). The result is that ever more areas within social life become subjected to inspection and control and there is a broadening from the traditional targeting of specific suspects, to categorical suspicion of all individuals, networks and organizations.

While new breakthroughs in biometric technologies will continue to occur and will continue to be trumpeted by publications such as BiometricUpdate.com, their application, especially by governments will also be continually and concurrently scrutinized. One of the benefits from the “engineered society” is continuous innovation, but continuous innovation must not be analogous to the continuous implementation of mechanisms of control that are not subject to proper security measures, legal oversight or even basic democratic principles. In free societies, we have a presumption of innocence and a right to privacy. We must remember that these concepts can be compromised by the use of centralized biometric databases.

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