The biometric database bill passed its first Knesset reading on Wednesday, with 18 Knesset members voting in favor and only MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) voting against it.
The bill now stands to undergo further legislative work in the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
The bill, brought before the House by the Ministry of the Interior, proposes Israel make the switch to "smart" identification methods, using fingerprints and digital photographs on documents such as identification cards and passports.
The bill, which passed its preliminary reading in August, also spells out the guidelines for the formation of a biometric database of all of Israel's residents.
The bill's foremost goal it to tackle forgeries: "The advantage of using biometric features in order to ascertain someone's identify stems from the fact that biometric information in constantly 'on' your person, as opposed to other types of identification measures, which may be subject to alterations and a limited ability to detect forgeries," said the brief.
Another notion promoted by the bill is the electronic signature clause, which would allow citizens to complete various procedures involving government bureaus via the internet, rather then having to personally appear before a government clerk.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told his colleagues that the bill has been more than a year in the making, by a team of technological and legal experts. Sheetrit warned that at present time there are an estimated 350,000 forged ID cards in Israel.
Gross invasion of privacy?
Should the bill pass its second the third readings, it would be up to the Ministry of Interior to begin putting the database together. One of the guidelines stipulates that citizens refusing to give biometric samples could face up to one year in jail; but the proposal makes no provisions as to how the database would be compiled.
The biometric database – which is already the center of vast public criticism – would also be at the police and armed forces' disposal, as means of identifying persons of interest. Such use of the database, however, would require a court order.
The motion has already been slammed as detrimental to civil rights: "Forming such a database would harm the citizens' basic, constitutional right to privacy in two ways: It would be at constant risk of being hacked into by hostile elements and allowing law enforcement agencies access to it would make potential criminals out of every law-abiding citizen," Attorney Dan Chai, of the Israeli Bar Association, said in August.
The amended bill which was brought before the Knesset addressed some of the criticism aimed at it, mostly be detailing the specific procedures those using it would have to abide by.
Detrimental to civil right? (Illustration: Index Open)
The new brief acknowledged the fact that biometric databases are not used by Western countries, claiming that after reviewing the alternatives, ministry found it to be the most effective way to combat forgeries. It also calls for appointing a State official tasked with monitoring the database is properly used.
'Forgeries a nationwide infliction'
MK Dov Khenin, who voted against the bill, said that while he supports introducing biometric documents, the database is redundant: "We would be the first Western county to have one, despite the fact that even the Ministry of Interior doesn’t deem it necessary to stop forgeries," he said.
The bill constitutes a violation of civil rights, added Khenin and urged his fellow MKs to review it yet again.
MK Arieh Eldad (National Union-National Religious Party) called on his peers to fight what he called "a nationwide infliction," adding that as far as he knew, "those opposing the bill more mostly crooks and felons."
Minister Sheetrit took the floor to address MK Khenin's concerns, saying that the bill has been delayed time and again because of its innate sensibilities. Sheetrit stressed the future database's contribution to the prevention of identify theft, adding that "the entire world is going biometric."
"The proposed bill wishes to anchor the use of the database, as well as detail the provisions made to protect (the citizens') privacy… forming such a database will not constitute any harm to civil rights," concluded the brief; further noting that the State would provide adequate measures to guard the highly sensitive database, but failing to detail their nature.
Ehud Kenan and Amnon Meranda contributed to this report