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ISRAEL: Dubai job re-raises concerns over biometrics

February 20, 2010 |  5:34 pm

Israel-biometrics-texas-state The Dubai affair has had its eyebrow-raising moments, like the Twitter accident (since un-tweeted) and the latest trends in spy wear. But it's also re-raising concerns about the possible next phase in smart identification: biometrics.

Intelligence agencies in false mustaches could soon be outsmarted by systems using biometric information to provide categorically positive IDs.

Phony IDs are used by the underage crowd to acquire beer as well as in the perpetration of scams, espionage and terrorism. Israel says it has about 350,000 fakes floating around, costing the country the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars. Financial scams are expensive; terrorism costs lives. A few years ago, Israeli authorities started pushing for smart, un-fake-able IDs with foolproof information -- and also a national biometric database. 

A group called NO2BIO campaigned against the biometric-database bill; among other actions, they mooned cameras outside the house of then-Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit in the wee hours, showing privacy goes both ways.

Israel's low-tech population database is already on the Web. But leaked biometrics such as facial features could allow anyone with a grudge and software (and maybe a gun) to pick out Israelis -- average Joes and high-ranking officials -- from a crowd in an airport or downtown rush hour anywhere in the world. It's universal jurisdiction on speed.

Avi Dichter, legislator and former head of Israel's General Security Service (GSS), says Israel secures far more sensitive databases. Government minister and lawmaker Michael Eitan says a biometric database is like a nuclear reactor that nobody needs -- and heaven help everyone if it leaks. 

Protests and warnings from information security experts led the government to reconsider halfway through legislation and announce a two-year pilot program on a voluntary basis instead. The Justice Ministry is already mulling legislation banning private biometric databases too.

Biometric identification is bad for bad guys but also for the guys who are after them. Agents will have to find new ways to cross borders when the world goes biometric and disguises won't fool programs measuring distances between points on a person's face. One report said Dubai would give Interpol retinal scans of the suspected assassins, but Israeli experts were dubious. 

Future operations will be higher tech and higher risk. Meanwhile, Michael Bodenheimer, an Israeli Torah scholar, continues to explain that it's someone else who applied for that (genuine) German passport in his name. And who paid for the tickets bought with those credit cards is still unknown.

Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz that the Dubai assassination was probably one of the last of its kind. Advanced technologies and biometrics will change the rules and, paradoxically, wind up hurting intelligence agencies, particularly Mossad, which is widely believed to have assassinations in its DNA and uses actual agents to carry them out, he writes.

If Mossad chief Meir Dagan and his like really are Superman, then it seems someone left some stuff in the phone booth while changing -- and lots of people want to know whose stuff it is. Israel already got in trouble when a bunch of British passports for use by Mossad agents were found in an actual phone booth in Bonn in 1987. With biometrics knocking on the door, Superman is going to have to find a new costume -- or maybe a new job altogether.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Human retina, now being increasingly scanned in biometric identity checks. Credit: Texas State University website

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