Lehigh University
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Global Security or Invasion of Privacy?

As part of a national pilot program, the Israeli government will be asking its citizens to voluntarily opt in to the creation of a national database by providing their photo, fingerprints, date of birth and a signature.  This information will be included in identification cards and passports, which will include a computer chip for short-range wireless communication. 

Databases like Israel’s, called biometric databases, are gaining popularity in countries looking to increase security within their borders. According to Nitzan Lebovic, assistant professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University, these databases “in their current form pose a formidable global challenge to champions of democracy, privacy, and individual choice. The plan is to open this database to all security services in Israel.” The project in Israel is being sold as a voluntary pilot project, but citizens needing new identification cards or passports must provide their information.  The pilot program will end in 2013 and the current plan is to make it obligatory and universal afterwards.

Writing for the Israel Democracy Institute, Lebovic offered the following:
 
“Israel’s biometric database was harshly criticized from the moment it was announced. Along with an array of legal and information-security experts, social organizations, and activists, some of Israel’s highest-ranking scientists took the unusual step of mobilizing opposition to the proposed database, which they maintained would ‘be detrimental to privacy and human dignity, and could potentially jeopardize the security of the State and its citizens.’” 

“Biometric legislation's declared purpose is to fight crime. In actuality, it alienates the citizen and confers a degree of unlimited authority on the state; the Information Age now enables the state to track the activities of individual citizens’ without revealing itself or its interest in them. It is hardly coincidental that the field of biometrics is based on technologies developed by commercial entities, or that these technologies are already being used by commercial clients.”

Lebovic and others also cite the failure by governments to adequately protect the personal information they are collecting.  In December 2011, a hacker in Israel was able to steal personal information related to nine million Israelis, living and dead, that was being kept by the Israeli government.

The Indian government claims to be building the world’s largest biometric database to include personal information on nearly 1 billion people that would monitor access to healthcare and education.  According to a recent New York Times article, many European Union members such as Germany and the Netherlands automatically include biometric information on passport radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. The plan of the Israeli government to open this database to the different security forces and the police seems like a precedent, according to Lebovic, which identifies with the concept of the “surveillance society” and recent challenges to contemporary democracy.

Lebovic was a researcher for the Israel Democracy Institute from 2007-2010. 

Story by Jennifer Tucker

Posted on Tuesday, March 06, 2012

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