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Barcoded face

A High Court of Justice panel on Monday raised doubts about the operation of the state’s biometric ID database, and questioned the benefit versus the risks of maintaining such a database in the first place, and why would the state not allow its citizens to choose whether or not to be included. The court heard a petition filed by the Digital Rights Movement against the obligation of all residents of Israel to join the biometric database.

Justice Yosef Elron’s skeptical attitude was typical of the panel’s notions, when he referred to the State’s assurance that only 11 employees have access to the biometric database. “Today it’s 11, tomorrow it’s 20, the day after tomorrow 30 and in another year perhaps 100,” he said.

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Attorney Udi Eitan of the State Prosecutor’s office replied with enviable certainty that “eleven is the required number, and all those authorized to have the access have been vetted by the Shin Bet and have a high clearance level.” He then argued that “the claim that this database is supposedly a security risk is inconsistent with the fact that the security forces were part of [the process].”

If the security forces are in favor of collecting biometric information on state citizens – then it must be kosher.

Judge Neil Hendel wondered why citizens should not have a choice in adding their personal information to the national biometric database. “If it’s really so good, so worthwhile, it’s so good for the citizen, you say you’re protecting him – so let him decide,” he said. “Time will do its part, and then people will join freely and no one will say, ‘I chose to give up my privacy.'” Instead, they’d be delighted not to be living under the threat of identity theft, or being accused of breaking the law at point A, when the database clearly shows they were at point B the whole night.

Judge Yitzhak Amit questioned why a government needs to gather data on its own citizens. “Given that we are giving a central government in a democratic regime a lot of details about every citizen, there is always the fear of some kind of a Black Mirror (a British science fiction television series examining the unintended consequences of new technologies).”

“Is the fear of double acquisition (one person holding more than one identity) is worth to all this?”

“It was necessary to move from the old world to the new world,” attorney Eitan explained, probably strumming all of Judge Amit’s strings regarding the Brave New World thing. “It was clear that we had to move on,” Eitan said, or, rather, the late George Orwell said it and the Prosecution attorney just moved his lips.

What if Citizen K does not wish to move on? Maybe he prefers to pay cash and use a pad and a pen instead of becoming part of the digital society? Or what if he owns a credit card and would rather take his chances than be added to the biometric database?

Attorney Yehonatan Klinger, speaking for the petitioners, suggested the fingerprints database is the biggest threat to personal freedom. Judge Amit asked what’s the harm in the police being able to solve crimes using the fingerprints database, and Klinger answered that police aren’t always just solving crimes.

True enough. There’s a lot a creative police man can do with a big database full of fingerprints. As if to prove this point, the state asked the court to present classified information to prove just how necessary the biometric database is, to which Klinger objected strongly – eliciting from Judge Amit the comment that this very attempt of using the biometric database to push along a court case which does not constitute a security emergency “adds a layer of black to the darkness.”

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