Israel Creating Nationwide Database of Citizens’ Faces, Fingerprints
TRNN’s Shir Hever says Hewlett Packard first used Palestinians under occupation as test subjects for the program and have now convinced the Israeli government to create a second database for its citizens
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
Last week the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, passed a controversial bill into law. The Biometric Database Law. The law creates a nationwide biometric database in which fingerprints and faces are recorded and matched to ID cards and passports. Israeli citizens are obligated to submit their face prints to the database and are also strongly encouraged to give their fingerprints. Now, many security and privacy experts have criticized the law and the database. They point out that there is no widespread problem of falsification of identity documents. They also note that there is also a risk of the database possibly being hacked, leaked, sold, or exploited by criminals. A majority of the Israeli parliament members are staunchly opposed to the biometric database, but were forced to tow the party line and vote in favor of the law. It passed but there is much confusion regarding how and when it will be implemented. Meanwhile, Israeli citizens are under increasing pressure by the authorities to submit their biometric information to the state.
And to discuss this further we’re joined with Shir Hever. Shir is a Real News correspondent. He’s joining us today from Heidelberg, Germany. Shir, thanks for being here.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Kim.
KIM BROWN: So, Shir, talk about the political climate in which such a bill was even introduced in the Israeli Parliament and then subsequently passed. I mean, you said some of these lawmakers, or many of them, were opposed to it. So why did they go along with this, if this is something that they weren’t in favor of?
SHIR HEVER: This is a very interesting display of Israeli political system when we see in the Knesset committee about the database, one by one the Israeli Parliament members saying, “This is a terrible law. This is a terrible database. The dangers are extreme and, most importantly, this is a terrible waste of money.” And, at the end of the day, the vote came and they voted in favor of it. With a quite significant majority. The same people who just stood up and said how terrible the law is. And at the other end of the spectrum we see Israeli activists who tried to stop the law. They had demonstrations, they had various campaigns to recruit people to disobey and not to give the biometric database. In the end that campaign has failed. And what we see behind the decision of the government to implement this law is the company, HP, Hewlett Packard, which I think a lot of people know because it’s a global company. And Hewlett Packard is the company that, started in 1999, 18 years ago, started doing business with the Israeli government on matters of security and on matters of biometric databases. And eventually they managed to get such close relations with the Israeli government that they were just able to win, one after the other, contracts with the Israeli ministries and they’ve become almost unstoppable at this point.
KIM BROWN: So, talk about why this database in Israel is exceptional. Because many countries do have biometric identity cards and passports and so what about the Israeli version of this stands out to you, Shir?
SHIR HEVER: Right. So, a lot of countries have biometric identity cards. That means that the biometric information is stored on the card. And when you present your identity card that can be compared to your actual fingerprint on the spot, to make sure that the card is you and that your identity is confirmed. That is accepted in many countries around the world. The difference is the database. Once you have all that data actually existing in a centralized database, then it allows the authorities to contact that database and to ask your name, and ask for you ID, and compare it with the central database. Now this sounds like a very normal measure, but actually no country in the world, at the moment, has this sort of centralized database except, to a certain extent, Iraq and Pakistan, who are trying to establish a kind of biometric database for their citizens. In Britain they tried to promote such a thing. And in 2010 the public outcry was so great that they, not only cancelled the database, but they actually deleted it. Because they were very concerned that this information could leak.
The law in Israel stipulates that police cannot just access the database and search without a warrant from a judge. But what they can do is whenever they encounter somebody not carrying an identity card, they can just punch their name into the system and launch a query what is the biometric information of that person? That gives every police officer in Israel the power to access this database if they have the name of the person. And that does not require judge authorization. And that means that police officers could also copy and paste this data into their personal computers or into their phones, sell it, and this is a very serious breach of privacy for Israeli citizens.
KIM BROWN: I want to get back to the role that Hewlett Packard is going to play in this, Shir. ‘Cause as you mentioned, they teamed up with the Israeli Government back in the late ’90s, they won the contract to create the biometric database, known as the Basil system, and this was initially aimed at controlling Palestinians under Israeli occupation. But now that this is going to be expanded to include all Israeli citizens, I mean, what exactly does Hewlett Packard have to gain from implementing, or at least expanding, the amount of people that are going to be included in this?
SHIR HEVER: This angle of the story is the most important one. And, in fact, all of the protests inside Israel against the biometric database, like the civil liberties of Israeli citizens, they did not want to talk about the history of this biometric database, because now the law passed to have biometric database for Israeli citizens, this is not the first biometric database created by Israel. It’s the second. Because the first one was created for Palestinians under occupation. By the same company, Hewlett Packard, HP. And they won the tender, and won the contract, to provide these biometric cards for Palestinians. They have to pay for these cards and carry them if they want to pass through the checkpoint. And at the checkpoint their information is compared with the central database of biometric information. And then the machine draws information automatically and tells the officer or the security guard on the spot, this person is allowed to pass or not allowed to pass. That is a very serious violation of the rights of the Palestinians. But, for the company HP this was simply not enough because there’s not that many Palestinians. Just two and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank who are living under this system of the Basil system. So, they wanted to expand it. And they were able to convince the Israeli Ministry of Public Security and, later, the Israeli Minister of Domestic Affairs, that it would be in the interests of the Israeli police if there would also be a database for the Israeli citizens. And now the same procedures of repression, of violation of privacy, which were tested on Palestinians in a laboratory-like situation are now expanded to encompass the entire population of Israel, the citizens as well. And I don’t think HP’s going to stop there. And that’s the main point. With this law HP, they have already received an exemption from a tender. That means that they automatically win the contract to produce those biometric cards for the entire Israeli population. That’s worth about $300 million. For a company like HP, $300 million is not that much money. But, with the laboratory expanding, first they tested it on Palestinians, it worked well. And now they’re going to test it on the entire population of Israel. The next step would be to export it to other countries and more countries around the world will have biometric databases produced by HP.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’re talking with Shir Hever, our Real News correspondent in Germany about the bill recently passed by the Israeli Parliament that creates a biometric database in which Israeli citizens are compelled to submit their face and fingerprints to be part of this database. It’s getting a lot of criticism from those in and outside of Israel. We’re going to come back with part two of our conversation.
You’re watching The Real News Network.
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KIM BROWN: Welcome back to part two of our conversation here on The Real News. I’m Kim Brown.
Shir Hever joins me from Germany. We’re talking about this latest bill that is now into law passed by the Israeli Parliament creating a biometric database, I understand this is like mandatory, Shir, I want you to give us some clarity on this, but citizens are being asked to submit their fingerprints and their face prints to this database. And, Shir, as we mentioned in part one, this is the second biometric database created by the State of Israel. The first one was aimed at Palestinians that were under occupation and now this is being expanded to include all Israeli citizens. It’s being sort of spearheaded by the company, Hewlett Packard, HP. And there has been some push back against this, as you told us in part one, that a number of Israeli parliamentarians were opposed to this, but yet, went along with it for political purposes. But there has been protests against the database. Tell us about how the citizenry has been reacting to this news of this latest law.
SHIR HEVER: Well, there was, and there’s no shortage of security experts in Israel, it’s a very common profession there, who are saying there is actually no need for this database. And it causes more risks than gains. The only benefit of having a database in addition to the … biometric identity card or passport is that if somebody comes to the ministry, comes to the authorities under false pretenses with a fake name in order to issue their identity card in the first place, then that could be prevented with a database, as opposed to somebody trying to steal somebody else’s card or fake their name or something like this. And so that is the only thing that they could prevent with a database. But they say, “Well, there’s very few cases of people actually trying that. It’s very risky, that’s not a real problem. The real problem is that the Israeli police the Israeli ministries they want more control over the citizenry, they want to have the ability to follow people, to survey them wherever they may go and HP’s offering them that technology and HP wants to offer that technology to other countries as well. That is why there’s so much protest in Israel. But actually, it’s not that much protest, if you consider the risks. And actually these demonstrations, these organizations that tried to prevent the biometric database, they were not able to stop it and they did not (sound difficulties)
KIM BROWN: So Shir, talk to us about the civil disobedience, if any, that’s happening in Israel. Are citizens organizing against this policy in the name of civil liberties, is there talk of not submitting your face and fingerprints to be civil disobedient against this new law? What steps are those in Israel who are opposed to this, what are they taking?
SHIR HEVER: There’s certainly talk of civil disobedience and there’s a Facebook group and a website calling on people, “Don’t submit your diametric information. Try to hold on as much as you can. Try to tell other people what you have to go through when you go to the Ministry to extend your identity card and so on. What kind of demands are made on you,” and so on.
So that is the kind of protest that people try to organize, but because the law is rather unclear, the law stipulates that until July people will actually have no choice and will have to give up their entire biometric information but after July, they will have some choice. And that is in order to encourage people to wait. But actually other people say that this is a wrong interpretation of the law and exactly the other way around and it’s not really clear on what points people can still insist and what people have to submit. So this is a matter of unclarity. I think, however, we have to understand why the protesters failed. And I think the main answer to this is that the protesters, themselves, and the organizers of the protesters, they refuse to address the issue that this is actually only the second database created by the Israeli government and not the first. They didn’t want to make a connection between the Basil(?) system, which was created for Palestinians, and the new system for Israeli citizens. We tried to get here, on The Real News, somebody to speak on that and they said, “Well, okay, but on that aspect we don’t want to talk about it.” And that’s the problem. Because Israelis don’t want to feel that they are being subjected to the same policies that are already being implemented on Palestinians. And by making that kind of protest by saying, “Look we are not people under occupation, we are free citizens, we don’t want to give our personal data to the government.” They would actually put themselves in a position of solidarity with Palestinians under occupation and politically that is impossible in Israel. That’s the problem. And they don’t want to be political, they don’t want to say that they care about the occupation. they don’t want to acknowledge that there is an occupation, that there are Palestinians living under occupation, so they keep silent of that point. And because they keep silent on it, HP wins. And they were able to push forward and the protest was in effect.
KIM BROWN: So why did HP choose Israel first for this project, in your opinion, Shir? And as you said earlier, if one country signs onto this and it’s allowed to proceed then it only makes sense that this will spread to other nations as well. So this seems to be very Orwellian, it’s very Minority Report, Jason Bourne, The Bourne Identity, to use those kinds of comparisons. But what does this mean for the rest of us? Can we expect the United States or European Union countries or countries in Asia to follow suit with this biometric database for its citizens?
SHIR HEVER: I’m afraid that we have to be very vigilant. In the past couple of months France has also tried to implement a similar policy of a biometric database for the entire population of France, that’s 60 million people. And there was a lot of public protests and they decided to back down. But if Israel does go through with it right now, that means that in France they can now try again. And there are already many politicians in France who say, “Israel are the experts in fighting terrorism. We should learn from Israel and if Israel does something in terms of security we can copy that in Europe as well.” And that is a major issue because Israel is a kind of symbol, especially for right-wing movements, for right wing parties, and for President Trump in the United States, he said specifically we need to use the same security policies used in Israel, racial profiling, specifically and to copy them in the United States. And after September 11 Israel became sort of the world capital for homeland security products. Because Israeli companies have the advantage they can say, “Look we have tested our equipment. We’ve tested our technology on actual human beings, on the Palestinians. So if you buy our technology you buy battle-proven or tested and proven technology. And so HP are fully aware of that and HP are now going to package their database capabilities to other countries and say, “Look this has already been implemented in Israel. They are the number one experts on security. So if you want to have security technology like in Israel, you should have biometric database in other countries as well.” And that is indeed the risk that governments around the world will accept that kind of logic and will submit their own citizens to this violation of basic human rights.
KIM BROWN: A very chilling story coming out of Israel.
Shir, we appreciate your reporting today.
We’ve been speaking with our Real News correspondent, Shir Hever, he’s been joining us from Heidelberg(?) Germany. Shir, thanks a lot.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Kim.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.