Israelis wary of biometric ID cards

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of Israelis who have chosen to apply for biometric ID cards: “The citizens of Israel are familiar with the database and knowingly opt out.”

al-monitor A security officer stands near closed El Al check-in counters in the departure hall at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, April 21, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Topics covered

ministry of interior, israelis, israel, information wars, digital revolution, culture war

Sep 19, 2014

The Israeli public continues to respond with a resounding no to the biometric database: According to the figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) on Sept. 17, only about a third of the ID cards and passports issued by the Ministry of Interior in the first six months of 2014 were biometric certificates.

This represents a sharp drop compared to the last half of 2013, when the number of biometric certificates accounted for almost half of the total number of certificates issued. “The citizens of Israel are familiar with the biometric database and knowingly opt out, electing not to join this dangerous experiment.” It has thus been stated in response by the Digital Rights Movement, which is leading the campaign against the biometric database.

The CBS report presents various data relating to the operation of the biometric database and the smart ID card project. The most interesting finding concerns the number of biometric certificates issued so far. In the first half of 2014, a total of 829,287 ID cards and passports were issued. Of these, some 250,000 regular ID cards and about 309,000 regular passports were issued, as against some 140,000 biometric ID cards and about 130,000 biometric passports. This means that a crucial part of the citizens applying for a new or renewed certificate refused to provide a fingerprint for inclusion in the biometric database. Only 36% of the identity cards and 30% of the passports issued were biometric.

In total, 212,720 Israelis joined the biometric database in the first half of 2014. And as of the end of June 2014, the number of citizens whose data are stored in the database stands at 395,574.

The majority have stayed out

The figures point to a sharp drop in the percentage of Israelis who have joined the biometric database, compared to the corresponding figures for the second half of 2013 (the first full half year of the database operation), when 50% of the ID cards and 46% of the passports issued were biometric.

Given that quite a number of the citizens applying for the services of the population registry offices are not necessarily seeking certificate renewal (they may just want to register a new address) and that once there, they are often exposed to pressures to join the database, it emerges that only a distinct minority of the Israelis agree to join the database.

According to the data, the percentage of men joining the database is higher than that of the women, and grows progressively with age — this, with the exception of the age group of 80 and above, where the percentages of those joining the database are similar to those in the age group of 26 to 39 years. The percentage of those joining the database among the group of “Arabs” is slightly higher than that among the group of “Jews and others.”

“The significant increase in the percentage of those refusing to join the database clearly shows that the public realizes that the database is both dangerous and needless,” said Jonathan Klinger, the legal counselor of the Digital Rights Movement. Nevertheless, according to the report issued by the Biometric Database Management Authority, the joining rates are significantly higher than the target set for the pilot period, which was at least 20% of all applicants for ID cards and passports.

Other interesting data relate to the reasons behind the objection of Israelis to join the database. According to the CBS poll, a crucial part of the Israelis — no less than 57.7% — have been exposed to the Interior Ministry’s publications regarding the biometric database. It seems, however, that these publications were not effective enough, as most Israelis have declined to take part in the experiment.

Be that as it may, the reasons cited by Israelis for their reluctance to join the database should serve as a warning light to the anti-database activists. It turns out that a significant percentage of the Israelis who sought to avoid a smart certificate were driven by utilitarian reasons: Thus, 29.4% said they declined to join the database because of the need to show up once again at the population registry offices to get the certificate, or because they needed the certificate urgently and could not wait for the smart certificate. Another 26.5% said they did not see the advantage of a smart certificate. Only 24.9% said they refused to join in as they did not trust the biometric database, while 19.1% refused simply because they had no desire to take part in an experimental procedure or due to their objection in principle to innovations. Finally, 20.7% gave other reasons for their refusal.

Why are people interested in joining the database?

Of those who agreed to join the database, 42.8% said they did so because the certificate was safer and could not be forged; 35% noted that it facilitated security checks at border crossings; 26% mentioned the convenience of using the certificate and its durability; 23.7% said that it was modern and sophisticated; 18.5% said they expected it to enable remote government services in the future; 10.8% pointed out their desire to be a part of a novel procedure; and 9.4% said they were indifferent to this or another method, while some admitted that they agreed to join in because there was no need to provide a passport photo.

The main rationale for establishing the biometric database was the prevention of identity theft. However, according to the semi-annual report released by the Interior Ministry on September 17, concurrently with the CBS report, so far, the database served to prevent identity theft in one case alone. “A person whose identity was stolen showed up at one of the population registry offices to renew his expired identity card,” the report recounts. “At the bureau, he was informed that an ID card on his name had been issued about six months before. Since the person in question flatly denied having anything to do with it, an application for an identity card and was initiated at the population registry office, and a biometric sample taken [a procedure known as biometric enrollment]. The biometric sample was then sent for probing and matching at the Biometric Database Management Authority, where a mismatch in the data was detected, and the request was subsequently denied. However, further inquiry by the population registry office revealed that the man's brother had stolen his identity, having successfully passed the questioning procedure thanks to his intimate acquaintance with his brother. The duplicate ID card was annulled, and the details of the event were passed on to the police for further investigation.”

The report's authors point out that since it's a voluntary pilot period, this single case is not indicative of the full extent of the phenomenon of identity theft. In reference to this issue, Klinger said: “It is evident that the authority is building a needless biometric database. Using the means at its disposal, the authority has failed to prevent 17 forgery attempts as against a single biometric spoofing attempt that was averted. The biometric database is not needed. We have recently been witness to the endless succession of leaks from a series of databases that were considered most secure. It is of importance that the citizens of Israel know that anyone who joins the biometric database exposes himself to an unnecessary risk, and that the law stipulates that there is no obligation to join this dangerous experiment. We call on the Israeli government and the minister of the interior to wield their authority to stop the biometric database experiment right away. What Israel needs is a smart certificate — rather than a dangerous biometric database.”

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