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Israel planning controversial new database to collect personal info of all travelers to and from the Jewish state

Database would be shared by several government branches from the Mossad to the tax authority

Passengers at Terminal 3 in Ben-Gurion International Airport, Aug. 5, 2021. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Israeli government is set to vote on a law that will enable the government to collect the personal data of all travelers entering and leaving Israel, whether they are Israeli citizens or foreign visitors. 

The data will include basic passenger information such as address, phone number, email address, but also sensitive information such as passport details, credit card numbers and health related issues, if need be.  

While the bill says that the database will strengthen the government’s abilities to handle criminal activity and terrorism, it will also be useful, the legislation notes, for monitoring travel during pandemics.

The legislation states that information obtained would be processed to “produce intelligence, which is used to fight criminal organizations and terrorist organizations; to strengthen civil aviation security; to improve the system of border control and the management of immigration procedures; as well as for maintaining public health and tracing those who may be carriers of dangerous diseases (the COVID pandemic has demonstrated the need for this ability).”

The information in the database would be available to a large selection of government bodies, including the Israel Police, Mossad, the Tax Authority, the Population and Immigration Authority, as well as the Health Ministry and the Transportation Ministry. These different authorities would be allowed to exchange the information in the database between them and with foreign states and international organizations. 

The concept has been met with criticism from lawyers and experts who fear that the information could become compromised whether through hacks, leaks or irresponsible use by authorities.

“I don’t know of any database that hasn’t leaked,” Professor Eli Biham, head of the cyber security research center and former dean of the computer science department at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, told Haaretz. “The Population Registry database is completely exposed, and National Insurance Institute data leak out all the time. It even has a price tag in the market – 500 shekels ($155) per record. Moreover, police officers use this information for their own good, and they check information about the legal situation of their daughters’ boyfriends, for example.”

Biham said collecting such information is beyond the pale of a democratic state. Israel, he said, already has “a broad phenomenon of data collection” from traffic cameras at most intersections and location data from cell phones.

“The state knows where we visited on the internet, and it also has a biometric database. The government explains that it will help the war against terror, but we cannot allow ourselves to become a dictatorship,” Biham said. “The state does not have the moral right to collect unnecessary data. It needs to collect the minimum needed to run the country, and to determine that I exist and I’m a citizen – but not beyond that… The state does not need to follow me or know where I am.” 

Biham said there is no reason for the government to know credit card or flight numbers.

“It’s the sort of information reserved only for emergency situations, in which there is a material suspicion, and there is a reason that they are provided only with a judge’s approval,” he noted. 

Jonathan Klinger, an Israeli lawyer for the Digital Rights Movement, said “the fight against terrorism” has become an excuse for such data collection.

“When you look at this law, the first question is who is it supposed to serve: The security services, the Health Ministry or the Population Authority? If the database serves so many purposes, it means one thing: This database has no purpose,” he said.

Klinger also pointed out that such a database would become a valuable target.

“It’s a database that’s worth money, its sales potential is enormous,” he said.

The law would make it possible to impose financial sanctions on airlines that do not cough up the data. 

Two records would be created from the data. The first from the initial airline booking and the second upon check-in when the traveler presents his passport. 

“The passport is scanned and the information contained in it is extracted from it,” the legislation says.

Cyber expert Doron Ofek from the Digital Rights Movement said such legislation will only increase the public’s animosity towards the measure. 

“The more the state expands the use of intrusive databases, so will the opposition to them grow on the part of the public,” Ofek said. “The public understands the risks embodied in establishing such intrusive databases, and I’m sorry to say the various branches of the government have still not internalized this.”

The public has until the end of April to respond to the proposed bill.

Read more: TRAVEL

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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