Israeli police are backing a bill that would give them sweeping biometric surveillance powers. The bill was recently published in draft form, and would codify a practice that has already drawn the ire of the Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli privacy advocates.
In that regard, the bill would specifically grant the police the ability to use facial recognition in public spaces throughout Israel. It would also allow them to perform those searches without a warrant, which essentially means that they would be able to match faces anywhere and at any time, with virtually no oversight to protect the civil liberties of the people being watched.
The police claim that facial recognition would help solve crimes and enforce restraining orders. However, the new bill does not include any provisions to prevent them from using it against those who are not implicated in any suspicious activity, nor does it include any restrictions on the storage and use of people’s biometric data. Data security instead would be left to the discretion of the justice ministers, though the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee would have to grant final approval for any official policies.
In the past, the Israeli Supreme Court has criticized the police for using surveillance vehicles, noting that the vehicles are not covered under any existing law. The proposed bill is intended to fill that gap, but privacy advocates are worried that it is heavily weighted toward the interests of law enforcement, and that it could potentially give the police permission to circumvent current privacy restrictions.
As it stands, the police need to obtain a warrant to search Israel’s biometric database. The concern is that the police would use the new law to build their own biometric database outside of the view of regulators. The bill states that the system cannot be used to harm civilians or violate their privacy, but does not specify how that provision would be enforced. The law would also allow the police to share any information that it collects with other Israeli law enforcement agencies, including the Military Intelligence Directorate.
“For years now the police have been employing more and more surveillance technology behind the backs of citizens that erodes our privacy,” said Association for Civil Rights in Israel Attorney Anne Suciu. “Now, instead of regulating and restricting these means by law, the police are asking for a blank check to continue in the same way. This law is a huge threat to the privacy of all of us and it gives a free hand to the police to use the information it gathers by means of this technology without judicial oversight.”
The police interest in facial recognition is in keeping with international trends. Law enforcement agencies from the United Kingdom to the United States and elsewhere having all shown considerable enthusiasm for the technology, though their efforts to deploy it at scale have faced considerable pushback from privacy watchdogs all over the world. The Israeli government has similarly been criticized for using face-based surveillance technology against Palestinians at multiple checkpoints in the West Bank.
July 13, 2021 – by Eric Weiss