By Nicholas West
One of the principal reasons why civil liberties advocates try to sound the alarm about emerging technology is that it can very quickly progress from dystopian scenarios only found in science fiction, to elective consumer adoption in the name of efficiency, to commonsense security measures, to governments surreptitiously using it for surveillance and ID, and on to the final phase of mandatory requirement by centralized government. Biometrics is a case in point.
The prevalence of biometrics has increased in a few short years to become entrenched in everything from banking, to drones, to student IDs, to facial recognition billboards, to voice recognition security . . . and we are now beginning to witness various governments impose biometrics upon their citizens, essentially as a requirement to even be a citizen.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. Supposedly democratic countries like Japan and India have both been rolling out progressively larger biometric ID programs. In Japan’s case, it already has a mandatory component to enroll for the collection and sharing of personally identifying information. In 2012 India revealed the scope of its biometric database plan that intends to encompass all 1.2 billion residents. It was being sold as a method of protecting the population from corruption and preventing identity theft and welfare fraud. As it stands today, it remains a massive project that is still in an elective phase, but many have warned about the growing connection to banking and general identification that will eventually make it exceedingly difficult to opt-out of.
The plan to put 1.2 billion people into a single database easily quelled the voices of those who never imagined that a country even the size of the U.S. could be so centrally managed. But, now, nearly all major countries have attempted some type of centralized identification system with various levels of success based on pushback from citizenry. The list of countries who have made it mandatory include Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Peru, and Spain.
In fact, the United States has become the focus of a recent uproar about its nationwide biometric database. The Next Generation Identification Biometrics Database went live in 2014 with most people completely unaware, and even those who were aware understood it to be limited to border control. Subsequent revelations, however, have shown that it has evolved into something more encompassing, including tens of millions of records from criminals and non-criminals such as:
- suspects and detainees
- fingerprints for job applicants
- military or volunteer service
- background checks
- security clearances
Worst of all, the FBI has been fighting to keep the full details secret from the public. Now U.S. citizens are left only to speculate if biometric identification will become mandatory in the near future.
Another ominous sign of the added potential for making biometric ID mandatory is coming from long-time U.S. cohort, Israel.
According to Israel’s Haaretz media, Interior Minister Arye Dery has stated that it will indeed become mandatory for citizens to have a biometric passport and/or ID effective immediately with the database set to go live in just a matter of months.
“From now on anyone obtaining a document from the Interior Ministry, whether an ID card or a passport, will receive a biometric one. We’ve decided on having this database and we’ll soon decide what will be included in it,” Dery said at a ceremony marking the millionth person to join the biometric database, which was held at the new Population and Immigration Authority office in south Tel Aviv.
Sounding like a comic book version of a propagandist, Dery anticipated potential concerns about data security by stating:
“There is nothing more secure than this database. People can remain calm, I can say with certainty – we have a secure database. Everything we do is for the benefit of our citizens,” he declared.
He, of course, concluded by enrolling himself in the program.
So far, nearly 1 million of Israel’s 8 million population are enrolled under a pilot program that began in 2013. Interestingly, voluntary interest in the program has appeared to wax and wane over the years. Perhaps that is because the government still hasn’t revealed exactly how the database will be used and what types of information will be mandatory and which will remain voluntary. All that is currently known is that some biometric information will be compulsory.
Senior Interior Ministry officials said they are now looking at different models for the database. One option is to include only a facial photograph. “That’s a good option for people who are reluctant to provide fingerprints, but its effectiveness is lower. Faces change over time, and people often choose to wear head covering while taking their photos. Such passports will therefore be issued for shorter durations. This will cause people to be hassled by appearing more frequently at our offices as well as imposing a greater burden on our employees. Another option is to make the provision of fingerprints compulsory, but this will evoke opposition.”
In internal discussions, Dery has been looking at a third way that combines the two – in this option a facial photo will be compulsory and the fingerprints voluntary. This may encourage people to give their fingerprints. “When people learn that passports with fingerprints will be issued for longer periods of 10 years instead of three to five years without fingerprinting, most people will provide their prints.”
Despite proclamations by government that the database is a done deal, there appears to be enough opposition to potentially alter or strike down the initiative in part or in full.
Attorney Yehonatan Klinger, the legal adviser of the Movement for Digital Rights, says, “We claim that this database is unnecessary, since people rarely lose documents that can prove their identity. There is no need for a database that will store fingerprints – identities can be verified without this. We’ll do our utmost so that the interior minister makes the right decision and halts the establishment of this database.”
It once was believed that only authoritarian regimes like Kuwait would aim to enter their law-abiding citizens into mandatory databases. Clearly too many people have remained naive and continue to have been persuaded by fear and appeals by government to trust them as the best route to security. Time and again, however, we have seen ineptitude and outright secrecy from government, which has threatened security rather than alleviated fears of outside violation. Only an informed citizenry prepared to demand the preservation of their civil liberties can thwart any misdirected or dictatorial plans resulting from centralized data management. In the words of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Government mandated biometric systems are invasive, costly, and damage the right to privacy and free expression. They violate the potential for anonymity, which is crucial for whistleblowers, investigators, journalists, and political dissidents.
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