Digital Rights Advocacy: The Campaign Against the Israeli Biometric Database

Efrat Daskal, an Annenberg-Oxford 2013 alum and 2014 CGCS Visiting Scholar, looks at the emerging digital rights movement in Israel which materialized in response to the 2009 Israeli Biometric Database Law initiative.

According to scholar Wolfgang Benedek (2008),[i] living in the digital world “has fostered the emergence of the global citizen who is . . . endowed with digital rights.” Some of these rights are considered to be new, such as equitable access to the internet and net neutrality, while others are based on classic and modern definitions of human rights but adjusted to fit with the digital sphere. Thus, argues Benedek (2008), digital rights also include rights such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy, the right to education, the right to fair use, and consumer rights. But, as Benedek admits, it is hard to define the meaning, and more importantly, the boundaries and limits of such rights in the digital world.

This lack of agreement over the exact definition and scope of digital rights serves not only as fertile ground for constant deliberation among different social actors (e.g., governments, media organizations, academics, lawyers) but also as possible leverage for other social actors, national and international, to step in and take part in the process of defining and framing these rights. One of these actors is the digital rights movement.

The digital rights movement is the embodiment of the concerted effort of organizations all over the world to defend digital rights. These organizations advocate for digital rights in parallel tracks, taking on governments and internet corporations in the constitutional, political, and judicial arenas on the one hand, and informing and educating the public about their rights on the other. Nevertheless, while the movement has been active and has experienced some success in preserving and defending digital rights in the US and Europe for nearly two decades, the Israeli movement is still struggling to call public and political attention to the subject.

In Israel, the only organization aimed at defending and protecting digital rights is the aptly named “The Digital Rights Movement,” which was formed in 2009 in response to the Israeli Biometric Database Law legislative initiative. Biometric documents use fingerprints and computerized tags of facial features to identify and verify the identity of citizens. Biometric details are stored in an encrypted form in a biometric database, which, in Israel, is under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior and the Population and Immigration Authority of Israel. The legislative initiative, which was later approved by the Israeli parliament, obliged every Israeli citizen to register in the database and obtain smart biometric documentation including identity cards and travel documents, which would access fingerprint scans and facial profiles through a secure electronic chip.

The Israeli Digital Rights Movement opposed this legislation, arguing that a biometric database violated Israeli citizens’ right to privacy on two key grounds. First, the database enabled the Israeli government to gather information about citizens and use it without their consent or knowledge, thereby violating their civil liberties. Second, the event of a database information leak would be irreversible since citizens’ private information would be released, leaving them forever vulnerable as biometric features cannot be altered. Additionally, in the event of a leak, citizens’ sensitive information may fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists who could use and exploit the biometric data of a specific citizen for questionable purposes.

Though the Biometric Database law was approved in 2009, the draft law was revised to state that, for the first two years, the database would only operate on a trial basis and registration would be voluntary. The decision to require citizens to join the database would then be determined based on the number of citizens who applied for the smart biometric documentation and those who did not apply during the pilot period. After years of delays, the pilot phase began in the summer of 2013, and the Israeli digital rights movement re-channeled its efforts from the political arena to the judicial arena and to the public sphere.

Several months after the start of the pilot, the Ministry of Interior initiated a campaign that encouraged citizens to register for smart ID cards and passports as part of the biometric program. The Ministry’s campaign, which began in October 2013, included commercials broadcast on television and radio, ads in the printed press and on billboards across the country, and the publication of sponsored articles on various news websites.

In response, the digital rights movement filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior that questioned the campaign’s legality and asked the court to instruct the government to discontinue it. In its petition, the movement argued that the campaign failed to state that by applying for electronic documents, citizens would automatically join a biometric database. The movement also noted that while it was in the Ministry of the Interior’s interest to publicize the database using mass media to encourage citizens to register during the pilot stage, by not fully disclosing the purpose of the smart ID campaign and the corollary consequences of issuing smart documents, the campaign could bias the results of the pilot in the Ministry’s favor. Finally, the movement indicated that the campaign did not explicitly mention that registering for smart documentation is voluntary, as citizens could alternatively still simply apply for a regular identity card or passport.

Despite its best efforts, in October 2013 the movement did not manage to stop the Ministry’s campaign through the courts. However, in a follow-up ruling in February 2014, the court stated that in any publication about smart documents, the state must fully disclose the implications of obtaining smart documents and state that acquiring smart documents is not obligatory.

In February 2014, the movement launched its own campaign in the public sphere against joining the biometric database. Financed through crowd-funding, the entire campaign production was supported by volunteers and citizens who opposed the database. The campaign highlighted the dangers of creating a biometric database and, in one campaign video, presented a scenario in which the database was compromised and its information fell into criminal hands.  Grabbing the attention of traditional mass media and digital media, the campaign stirred the public debate concerning the merits and pitfalls of the biometric database. It is, however, still too early to verify if the campaign had any further impact.

As demonstrated through its involvement in the biometrics database debate, the Israeli Digital Rights Movement is beginning to take steps to defend the digital rights of Israeli citizens. With these steps, the movement aims to trigger a larger change in public attitude toward the importance of digital rights. Successes and failures, which remain to be seen, from this initial campaign may ultimately inform future steps for the Digital Rights Movement in Israel.

[i] Benedek, W. (2008). Internet governance and human rights. In W. Benedek, V. Bauer & M. Kettemann (Eds.), Internet governance and the information society (pp. 31- 50). The Netherlands: Eleven International Publishing.


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