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Israeli government backs bill to use facial recognition tech

The legislation comes amid a crime wave in Arab communities.

Photo by Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.
Photo by Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.

Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation last week approved government backing for a bill that would permit and regulate the use of facial recognition technology in public places for security purposes.

The legislation, which was advanced by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, was the only item on the agenda for the special session, as the Knesset is in recess for the High Holidays. The committee’s backing will all but guarantee the bill’s eventual approval by the Knesset.

The bill would let the Israel Police use facial recognition cameras to proactively, and retroactively, analyze footage to seek out specific actors or illegal activities.

“These uses allow the police to trace the identity and location of suspects and therefore are a useful and effective tool for recognizing and preventing crime and allowing the police to maintain public order and protect the peace and safety of the public,” the proposed law states.

According to the bill, use of the technology will be limited to cases of “severe crime,” which is defined as crimes carrying a minimum sentence of seven years in prison as well as a specific list of other crimes stipulated in the legislation.

“This is a technology that will not be used lightly and is exclusively a tool for combating the most serious dangers,” a representative of the National Security Ministry told JNS.

Levin and Ben-Gvir first advanced the bill last February. It stalled, however, due to a lack of specificity regarding when and where the technology could be deployed.

Many previous governments also attempted to institutionalize the use of facial recognition technology as a security tool, including the most recent one under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and the Justice Ministry under Tzipi Livni in 2013.

The current bill contains a provision that would require all data obtained by the facial recognition software to remain confidential and be deleted within 72 hours, unless directly relevant to ongoing and specific law enforcement operations.

Furthermore, according to the current draft, to use the technology police will have to specify a specific suspect location that will be approved by a senior officer, at which point they will be allowed to deploy the technology to the location as well as to all access roads.

This permission will be conditional on law enforcement’s ability to provide a “factual basis that this is necessary for a specific operational purpose due to a high probability that serious crimes [will be committed] that endanger the life of a person, public safety or the security of the state.”

These permissions will be active for up to six months, at which point a senior officer could authorize a further six months.

“Freedom of speech events”

Another clause in the bill bans the use of this technology at “freedom of speech events” such as protests and demonstrations.

Any abuse or infringement of these rules would carry a minimum three-year prison sentence. The enforcement of these restrictions would be administered by the police; however, they would be required to provide a yearly report of their activities to the Knesset and the Attorney General’s Office.

Levin and Ben-Gvir’s new push to expand the Israel Police’s technological arsenal has raised concerns due to a spate of recent scandals surrounding police misuse of advanced technology.

In August, the Justice Ministry initiated a probe into the police’s extrajudicial use of spyware to gather illegal evidence against suspects and witnesses in high-profile cases, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

Furthermore, the new bill reignited concerns stemming from a 2020 leak, according to which Israeli police allegedly created an infrastructure to track the movement of cars and collected all this data into a large database. This operation, known as the “Hawkeye Initiative,” had no judicial or legislative oversight or approval. The text of the new bill has an earmark that would retroactively legalize the use of the Hawkeye Initiative data and bring it into a regulated framework.

The proposed law further raised concerns about the violation of citizens’ privacy, as in order to effectively make real-time identifications, the police would need access to biometric databases currently being held by other authorities including the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF.

The opposition has dubbed the bill the “Big Brother Law.”

In an effort to alleviate these concerns, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation conditioned its support for the bill on future discussions “about technological supervision over biometric data,” according to a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry. However, activists remain skeptical.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of the institute’s Democracy in the Information Age program, said that “the damage [to privacy] by such a system is so big, it should be forbidden.”

Crime wave

Proponents of the proposed measures say they are needed to institute effective law enforcement in Israel, especially in the context of the crime wave that has been sweeping the Arab-Israeli community over the past year.

“We are in an unprecedented situation in terms of crime and we need all the tools we can get to be effective,” a spokesperson for the Israel Police told JNS.

So far this year, 180 Arabs have died as a result of crime in Israel, including 163 shot dead. By comparison, 80 Arabs were killed as the result of violent crime in the same period in 2022.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai hailed the legislation as “life-saving” in a statement earlier this week.

“The bill that is being submitted for [Knesset] approval by the Ministerial Committee is a life-saving tool, without which the Israel Police would not be able to deal with criminal terrorism, homicides and assassination attempts in the Arab sector,” Shabtai said.

He said the proposed law strikes “a balance between the need to preserve human life and the importance of protecting individual rights,” and added that the technology would be “used only subject to supervision and control mechanisms that will ensure its use for purposes set by law and under [legal] restrictions.”

Ben-Gvir also strongly endorsed the use of this technology.

“While the number of murder victims in the Arab sector rises and protection crimes are common, there is a great need for cameras that recognize faces, which are common worldwide. At the same time, on our watch we will do everything to prevent inappropriate use of the cameras and, therefore, we have set a prison sentence [for misuse of the camera] and have limited their use to severe incidents such as serious crime and protection rackets,” Ben-Gvir said. “We have brought a precise and balanced law.”

The Attorney General’s Office also supports the bill.

On Monday, the Justice Ministry’s legal adviser issued an opinion in support of the legislation. However, it also stipulated an expectation that language would be added to the bill that would further define the restrictions on the use of the technology.

The bill is being refined to come into closer agreement with the stipulations of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and the attorney general. It is expected to advance to an initial plenum vote when the Knesset returns from recess on Oct. 15, after the High Holidays.

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